‘Producing socially conscious and eco-friendly clothing’

‘Boss, don't worry’ – Women in Bangladesh stand up for their rights

At eleven she was working in a garment factory. Today Nazma Akter keeps an eye on the bosses. A popular board game in the women’s cafés makes female garment workers smarter and braver. Sometimes the men now have to do the cooking.

In Bangladesh’s readymade garment industry, the power of women is growing. There are still lots of problems, as the recent factory fire that killed 112 workers clearly showed. Nevertheless, working conditions are improving, the meagre wages are rising. In the women’s cafés, the women recharge their batteries for women power and professional advancement.

‘Our country needs some good news,’ says Nazma Akter. The 39-year-old woman taught herself basic English and computer skills. Now she can follow the international headlines about her country in the internet: the deadly fire in a garment factory in November, natural disasters, ferry accidents, poverty.

Akter is the founder of the Awaj Foundation. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) counsels, trains, and educates female garment workers, most of whom live in the slums near the factories. Many can hardly read or write. The NGO also has lawyers and legal advisors; it fights unjustified dismissals and discrimination in the workplace.

One of the cafés is on the first floor of a modest building in the Mirpur district of the capital city of Dhaka. Small groups of women sit on bast or cloth mats on the floor. The workers laugh, ask questions, answer, and learn. The game is called Ludo in their language and is similar to the American Parcheesi. It is one of the most popular games in Muslim Bangladesh, a country as large as southern Germany, but with 160 million residents.

The women in the cafés play a version of this game as they drink tea or water and munch small snacks. Whoever lands on a square with a question mark needs to know something about labour law, because a wrong answer will cost her a turn to throw the dice. One of the game leaders reads from a card: ‘How many months of maternity leave does a female worker get?’. ‘Four months,’ responds the 22-year-old in a long red-yellow shalwar kameez (long dress over loose trousers). Everyone applauds. A small basket contains pieces of soap for the winners.

The game is part of the training for women, who also learn to express themselves and to face their bosses with confidence. On the walls there are posters, bright pictures, and helpful slogans about women’s rights, protection against discrimination, hygiene and safety standards. Outside old trucks and motorized three-wheelers honk. Endless rickshaw drivers pedal and gesticulate their way through the daily traffic chaos.

The laughter of the women floats into the modest office of Nazma Akhter. The founder of the women’s cafés wears a shawl over her long blue shalwar kameez, leaving her head and shoulders free. Many urban women and intellectuals leave their hair uncovered. Things are more conservative in the rural areas.

Akter grins with approval when she hears the new name being suggested for the educational game: ‘Boss, don’t worry’ – because Akter’s followers know their rights. Today, this power woman is well-known in Bangladesh as a campaigner for women’s rights and better working conditions. Many bosses now seek her out as a bridge builder and mediator. The 39-year-old is also President of Sammilito Garment Sramik Federation, one of many associations and trade unions in the sector.

The Awaj Foundation and other women’s activities in the readymade garment industry are supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Government. The programme for Promotion of Social and Environmental Standards in the Textile Industry (PSES) trains trainers and provides equipment and material for offices, courses and information evenings.

‘In collaboration with the Awaj Foundation, we are helping to raise the awareness of female factory workers on their labour rights,’ explains GIZ Programme Coordinator Magnus Schmid. ‘We train the factory managers and teach government industrial inspectors how to monitor compliance with social standards.’

Great Britain, the United Nations, the European Union, and others are also working for fair working conditions and sustainable production with more safety, less environmental pollution, and less waste of energy in poverty-stricken Bangladesh.

‘When I was eleven I had to leave school and work in a garment factory in order to help support my family. My mother taught me what to do. The conditions were terrible, up to 14 hours a day,’ explains Nazma Akter during a walk through one of the slums. Many people greet her warmly.

As a young girl, Akter met kindred spirits and made friends in a trade union. She says: ‘After several years of massive protest, I learned how important compromises are – if a factory has to close, many people lose their jobs.’

Several tall buildings in the street tower over the huts made of wood, corrugated sheeting, and tarps in the slum. Two buildings are among the over 4300 readymade garment factories in Bangladesh. There are still many black sheep in the sector, mostly in smaller factories in remote areas, where supervisors hit the women and children are employed – something that was outlawed years ago. However, criminal employers no longer have near the scope to operate that they once had.

‘You can see the progress for women workers today. Women today are less afraid, they come to the cafés and also talk about violations of the law with the lawyers working for the project,’ says GIZ staff member Shatil Ara. The 34-year-old emphasises: ‘Importers in Germany, Italy, the USA, and Great Britain are aware of the damage to their image that results from critical international press reports’ and they now inspect the working conditions in the Bangladeshi firms that supply them more often.

Only a few blocks away, two managers of M&M Shirts Limited take guests on a tour of the facilities. Many of these multi-storey factories look like office or apartment buildings. One of the bosses points to the emergency exits, illustrated emergency signs, first-aid kits and fire extinguishers. The wiring and the lighting is new and energy conserving, he says.

’Of course not all the factories in the country are like this one,’ says Shatil Ara. ‘But we women are increasingly demanding that frayed electrical cables are replaced and that there are functioning emergency exits.’ It is high time that German firms check their producers more often. After the recent big fire in a garment factory near Dhaka in which the exits were locked and 112 people died, there was a storm of protest, also internationally, against the unscrupulous practices of owners and managers.

Twenty-two-year-old Sapla Akter lives in a slum in the port city of Chittagong and says: ‘In the evenings, I can hardly move my hands, my back hurts. I still have to cook, clean, get drinking water.’ The neighbours have a television. ‘I can watch Indian films there – my only relaxation.’ But she is happy that she has the garment job, says the 22-year-old. Even today, the women often work 10 or more hours. According to the law, only eight hours a day plus maximum two hours overtime are allowed in the sector.

Lota Sriti is now a supervisor in a factory in Dhaka. ‘The training in the women’s groups showed me that I can have a career. My income has gone up, as has my family’s and friends’ respect for me.’ A manager of the J.K. Group supports his female workers: ‘It is encouraging to also have women in positions of responsibility.’ Garments exports are by far the most important source of foreign exchange in Bangladesh. The sector employs about 3.5 million workers, around 80% of them women.

Unskilled workers earn a minimum wage of 3000 taka per month for eight hours of work a day. In most cases, bonuses and overtime are on top of that, bringing the total to EUR 35-40 a month. That is little, although it is twice as much as just a few years ago. Women in higher positions earn up to EUR 120. Time and again, workers take to the streets to demand their rights. It does not always remain peaceful. The result: burning barricades, brutal police action, injured. However, many demands have been met. Some unions are now demanding a minimum wage of 5000 taka (EUR 50).

Bangladesh is the third-largest supplier of clothing to Europe. Germany plays a particularly important role: ‘This trend will continue. We are experiencing a shift of production from China to Bangladesh,’ says Daniel Seidl, Executive Director of the Bangladesh German Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Dhaka. In his words, European firms have ‘become particularly active in helping their producers in Bangladesh to comply with social standards and in working with a selected pool of factories.’

Many female workers in the garment sector today earn more than their husbands, who work as porters or unskilled labourers or are unemployed. The traditional family model with the woman at home with her children and the man at work is breaking apart in Bangladesh today. ‘The men also have to cook,’ says power woman Akter. ‘My husband had to get used to the fact that I am often not home because of my many appointments.’

Author: Bernd Kubisch.
The article was first published on the Spiegel Online website on 8 January 2013.