A Bangladeshi tale of blood, tears and sweat!
Published : Sunday, 23 February, 2020 at 12:00 AM Count : 158
My story is aimed to shed focus on the 'resilience' of the hardworking men and women, who identify with the garment industry of Bangladesh. Beyond any doubt, the country has developed enviable skills and proficiency, by way of adding value through the skilled 'labor'; thereby ensuring that the garments produced in the country, are salable in Europe, as a brand that is also popular, elsewhere in global market place. The country's valued T-shirts produced by the local garment industry, are reputed to sell fast, paying quick dividends-and most certainly, reputed to have 'transformed' the lives of people in the country.
A society's economic prosperity is the direct outcome of its industrial production! And, my story relates to two ordinary people, both real sisters-who were able to come up with the famous global brand, we know as the 'H&K T-shirt' (not the real brand name).
Both sisters Shumi and Minu worked tirelessly at the factory, six days a week, operating high grade stitching machines-at a garment manufacturing unit called DFL, located in Chittagong. This happens to be the country's second largest city, located in the southern Bangladesh. For their hard work, they were each being paid in local Taka, an equivalent of US $80 a month.
Money never comes easy to the garment industry worker, particularly in Bangladesh. To get to the small rented premises (a room) which the two sisters were constrained to share with Minu's husband-one would have to squeeze between two buildings, to make his/her way along the wall, and then drop out into a little cluster of boxlike rooms, all crammed on top of each other. The trios room was located upstairs, with a tin roof over the head. There was no running water in their room, with no concept of a kitchen, in the premises. There was a small TV, which Minu had purchased some time ago, from the earnings she had made by stitching garments at the factory.
A box carton that had packed and carried the TV home, had taken up a lot of the cluttered shelf space, in that small room. Minu was so proud of her belonging, the appliance-she couldn't bear to throw the box away. 'I always felt so good when I thought about it,' she related to everyone, with a swift smile.
The readymade garment industry had prospered in the country, particularly in securing for itself a viable, dependable economic foothold-the past decade had attracted millions of Bangladeshis to join this 'money' making venture. And, before one could realize, the work force in the garment industry, had suddenly exploded. Many of the workers happened to follow the journey of Shumi and Minu. Both sisters had grown up in the remote village, where living conditions were imaginably, even worse than those existing for factory workers in the city.
When Shumi and Minu were growing up, often they would be faced with the dilemma- there just wasn't enough food to eat. They had three younger sisters who unfortunately had all died before they reached the age of seven. Infant mortality-that is the bitter reality of life in the country. And luckily so, Shumi and Minu were now able to send money home. It wasn't much, but it certainly made a big difference in the village.
'Now, we can eat whatever we want,' their mother would proudly say. From the savings, their parents were able build a new house, made of bricks, replacing their old, thatched, bamboo house. And their younger brother could afford to study in school.
Like the home remittances sent by Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia, the indigenous rise of factory jobs in Bangladesh had brought profound life style changes in the country, as well. One could see the shift in just the few years that had separated the two dear sisters-Minu and Shumi. The older sister Minu was is in her mid-20s. (both sisters aren't sure of their exact ages). She was cynical and had picked up the habit of chewing tobacco, wrapped in betel leaf.
Minu had a 7-year-old daughter, who lives back in the village with her grandparents. 'I miss her,' Minu had remarked through a translator. 'If she were here now, I'd be putting little clips in her hair.' But there's nobody to look after Minu's daughter, while the mother worked full time here in Chittagong city. Shumi, who was about 19, happened to be Minu's opposite.
Where Minu was reserved, Shumi was boisterous and bubbly. Where Minu was serious, Shumi had worn a smile on her face. She loved her makeup and spent more time doing her hair. It was hard for her to get through a conversation without her hearty laugh.
Minu's father had married her off when she was a teenager, pretty much in accordance with the local traditions. An unmarried daughter 'becomes a big burden', her father thad shared. 'I have to spend money on their food and lodging."
A huge problem was that Minu and her husband disagreed and had quarreled a lot. Often, her husband would scan through her phone only to accuse her of 'cheating', or having a questionable relationship with the men she worked with. She was obviously, a little scared of him. 'I'm not capable to forgive my parents,' Minu would lament. 'They simply destroyed my life'.
By the time Shumi grew up, attaining to be a teenager, the society in Bangladesh had changed in terms of social practices. Traditions had been compromised. Rather than getting married Shumi had dropped out of school, to join work with her sister in the garment factory.
Shumi's own life style was nothing compared to Minu's. Shumi had managed to have her own savings account in the local bank. And, she also had a boyfriend! Back in the village, her family would never let her talk to a boy who wasn't a relative. But here she was on her own, she was taking rickshaw joy rides with her boyfriend. They would hold hands; the boyfriend would happily tell Shimu, how much he had loved her.
And, Shumi had repeatedly asserted that , she would never consent to an arranged marriage like her sister's. 'If I marry someone, then it would only be my boyfriend', she had reiterated.
A T-shirt stitched and finished in Bangladesh had carried overseas the stories of all those who had handled it, at various levels of production-from cutting to pressing, and the final polytene wrapping.
Every T-shirt produced and processed in the country, and shipped to Europe has carried the stories of hardship, tears, struggles, and heartbreak of people-who survived and made their best in a small room, and had chased bubbles of hope in their dream of a better life. For Minu and Shumi, this little room with the TV was perhaps, as far as they get on in life.
Today, there aren't many jobs outside the garment industry, especially for women who drop out of school, to challenge mass poverty. Minu's dreams are now focused on her daughter. She's hopeful that her daughter can stay in school. She also dreams that when her daughter grows up, there may be all kinds of opportunities in Bangladesh available to her. Perhaps,her daughter could also work in a respectable 'office', or even a local branch of a bank.
The garment factory with its humid, suffocating premises, where thousands of female workers are huddled together in sweat and toil-find no place in Minu's dreams. It is not really, worth the thought!
The writer is a former educator based in Chicago