Sajeda's day starts at 6 in the morning. That is the time when she has to report to duty during Ramadan. She works in a garment factory in Dhaka city, makes dresses for others, for us. But, what about herself? And many others like her? The garment sector is the major foreign currency earner in the country but the garment workers make headlines only when some disasters take place. Rana Plaza collapse and subsequent deaths of a large number of garment workers are still vivid in our collective memory.
As Eid-ul Fitr, the biggest festival of the Muslims, is round the corner, I was curious to know how the garment workers celebrate Eid. So I approached Sajeda in the twilight of a Ramadan day when she was in a hurry to go back to her work after the break of fast. I didn't expect it as I thought after iftaar the garment workers would be free. Introducing myself as a journalist, I requested her to give me 10 minutes. But she refused to talk to any journalist fearing that she might lose her job if the authorities knew about the conversation. On my assurance that I was not going to mention her factory she agreed to talk to me. My first curiosity was how long they work during Ramadan. Sajeda said at her factory they have to work from 6am to 2pm, including half an hour prayer break, as general duty and from 2pm to 8pm, sometimes 10pm, when they work overtime. For taking iftaar they get a one-hour break. Besides, at least two Fridays during Ramadan and two Fridays after Eid they have to work like other days as they enjoy three to four days extra leave for Eid.
Sajeda (30), from Bogra, has been working in this sector for seven years. Her only daughter, a student of class seven, lives with her mother in Bogra. She has to bear all her family expenditure as her husband lives separately. She earns a total of Tk 9,000-10,000 per month (fixed salary plus overtime). The amount goes up to Tk 13,000 when Eid bonus is added. Despite a tight work schedule, she manages some time for Eid shopping. She buys new clothes, shoes and some cosmetics like nail polish, lipstick, earrings for her daughter within Tk 2,000, and for herself only a cotton salwar kamiz within Tk 500 and for her mother a cotton saree. Including transport costs, she spends Tk 6,000 to Tk 7000 for Eid celebrations. She said: "All of my tiredness vanishes at the moment when I meet my daughter during the Eid vacations."
Taslima, 25, works at another factory in the same area as a senior operator. Her husband also works as a floor in-charge at the same factory. Usually, their work starts at 7am and continues till 3.30pm. Then till 9.30 pm they work overtime. They get a half-hour-break at 1pm for prayer and a one-hour-break for iftaar. They have one daughter, aged 10, who lives with her paternal grandmother at their village home in Bagerhat. Taslima gets Tk 10,000, including overtime, while her husband earns around Tk 20,000. They also get 6-7 days of leave for Eid and that's why they have to work at least two Fridays during Ramadan and two Fridays after Eid as general duty. This couple buys gifts for their parents, in-laws and other relatives also. They cook polao (a special item of rice), beef and vermicelli on Eid Day. They enjoy both Eids (Eid-ul Fitr and Eid-ul Adha) at their village home with their families.
Let us go to another factory in a different area of the capital, where Md Shahidul (30) works as a senior operator. His work during Ramadan also starts at 7am and ends at 5pm. Shahidul is the only bread earner of his family, which includes his wife and two sons aged 11 years and four years each. The elder son reads in class six. Including overtime, Shahidul earns around Tk 10,000 per month. When asked him about his Eid celebrations, he sighed and said, "I cannot manage my family expenditure with my earnings, so it is very difficult for me to purchase new clothes for my family members." Shahidul lives in a rented tin-shed room on the outskirts of the capital with his family. Though he gets Eid bonus amounting to around Tk 2,500-3,000, he cannot afford beef or polao on every Eid. The only common dish for celebrating Eid is vermicelli. The family does not even go for outing on Eid day due to financial constraints. Shahidul's home district is Barisal. He stays in Dhaka during Eid vacation along with his wife and children. His children never complain about anything. They have accepted this life for granted and despite all odds they try to remain cheerful.
Taslima, 40, lost her husband five to six years back and since then she has had to bear all the expenditure of her three children-two sons, aged 20 years and seven years, and a daughter aged 15 years. Her daughter studies in class seven in a school in the capital and her youngest son is in a madrasa. She lives with her children in a rented tin-shed room on the outskirts of the capital and works as an operator at the same factory where Shahidul works. Her salary is around six and a half thousand taka, which reaches to Tk 8000-8500 per month, including overtime. Her elder son does not do anything to help his mother financially. So it becomes very hard on her to maintain her family on this income. That is the reason why many workers of the factory live on the outskirts of the capital, where house rent is comparatively low.
Many of them go to the factory on foot, which takes one hour to reach their destination. Including overtime and Eid bonus ahead of two Eids, Taslima gets around Tk 10,000. But it is not sufficient for celebrating Eid as almost nothing is left after meeting the family expenditure. Moreover, she is in debt this year. So she cannot buy anything for her children let alone for herself. When I asked her about previous years' Eid celebrations she said usually she buys new clothes for her daughter and youngest son at a very low price. Vermicelli is the item which she must cooks on Eid Day. She cannot afford polao, beef or chicken on this very day.
Monswita Bulbuli is In-charge, Eduvista, The Daily Observer