Bangladesh presently exports Ready-Made Garment (RMG) to about 30 countries around the world. More women, whether pushed by poverty or pulled by opportunity, work outside home particularly in the RMG sector. The exodus of women to work in urban areas, leaving homes and families, is a relatively recent development. Despite the employment opportunities at the garment factories, women workers in Bangladesh suffer from abject poverty. Most of them earn less than a dollar (US) a day. Workers of the multi-billion dollar industry live hand to mouth and often starve along with children. Lack of proper literacy skills is holding them back at work that in turn is contributing to low wages. Problems of industrial work and urban living are compounded by the mere fact that there are not enough affordable housing and transportation facilities for workers on limited wages. How the workers cope with daily expenses on a wage of less than a dollar a day is focus of the paper. This paper attempts to present the living conditions depicted by the academic literature and juxtapose it against the narratives of the interviewed garment workers in Bangladesh.
The Ready-Made Garment (RMG) Sector in Bangladesh currently employs 1.2 million workers through its 3000 factories and it is a 100% export-oriented industry. It accounts for 76% of the total exports of Bangladesh (Bhattacharya and Rahman, 2000: 2). The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Employers Association (BGMEA) estimates suggest RMG exports increased from US$866.82million in 1990/91 to US$3781.94million in 1997/98 (Zohir 2000: 4). Women form over 90% of production workers in the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) factories, which constitutes about 70 percent of the total female employment in the country’s manufacturing sector (Bhattacharya and Rahman 2000: 4). Women work because of economic hardship and 91% receive minimum wages (Jamaly and Wickramanayake, 1996). Their monthly income varies with occupation and overtime. On an average they earn from US$20 to US$70 (Paul-Majumder and Begum, 2000: 26). According to the Minimum Wage Ordinance, 1994 of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh, the minimum wages of apprentices and helpers are US$10 and US18 per month respectively. When the rent for a room in a squatter settlement costs US$20, the minimum wages are below US$20 for workers at lower level of production force.
Often with less than primary level education or no formal education, women migrate from rural to urban areas in search of work and better living conditions. They are pushed out of rural areas due to floods, cyclones and abject poverty. Garment factories employ them without any formal job contract. Thus, they are easily hired and fired. Workers are not provided with any compensation when they are laid off due to lack of shipment order. Women work merely as helpers and less frequently as line supervisors (Kabeer 1991:135). Occupation determines wages and impacts living conditions in Dhaka. The living conditions of garment workers are appalling. The workers of the multi-billion dollar industry face problems in getting decent accommodation, transport, and commute security and suffer as migrant workers on a daily basis. Low wages and lack of access to basic needs compel workers to compromise with the problems of living in urban centres.
Background: Living Conditions of Women Workers
A problem faced by working women (migrants) especially in urban areas is the lack of proper accommodation. Khan (1993:77) notes that it is terribly expensive for a single person to rent an accommodation on her own. It is also difficult to find a landlord who would let out his place to a single woman. According to Table 2, 73.4% female workers live in a house with family and only 1.5 % live alone.
Table 1 Nature of Living of the Garment workers (per cent)
|Nature of Living||Garment Worker|
|Male (219)||Female (589)|
|Brother and sister in single room||1.8||2.6|
Source: Paul-Majumder and Begum 2000. The Gender Impacts of Growth of Export Oriented Manufacturing in Bangladesh: Case Study: Ready Made garment Industry Bangladesh: 63.
I found during my fieldwork, that women face extreme hardship to meet ends because of low wages and high rental costs. Usually, rent consumes 60% of the monthly wages of a worker. Zohir and Paul-Majumder (1996), Paul-Majumder and Begum (2000) and Zohir (2000) have done extensive research on housing of garment workers and their study illustrate that accommodation, at present in the city, is not adequate for 1.5 million workers. The following is a brief discussion of the different types of accommodation availed by migrant women workers.
A “bostee” is equivalent to a squatter settlement. In Bangladesh a bostee comprises of a group of thatched or tin-roofed one-room houses that stand next to each other with inadequate shared sanitation facilities. Usually the rent is between Tk.800 to Tk.1800 per month. Sometimes there is electricity and stove with private bath facilities. Sometimes all of these facilities are absent and residents depend on polluted lake water for a bath, cook with fuel wood and burn kerosene lamp or hurricane as a substitute of electricity. Zohir and Paul-Majumder (1996) show that there are variations in residence types according to job categories. The sewing and finishing helpers live mostly with family members or with relatives. Of their sample, only 14 percent of the total workers live in bostees, and the rest live outside bostee. Moreover, relative to men (10 percent), more female workers live in bostees (16 percent). Those living in bostees are subject to unhealthy living environment. It is also insecure in the sense that sometimes bostees are uprooted by the law enforcing agencies because they are built on others land without permission and proper papers.
b. Factory Accommodation
Zohir and Paul-Majumder (1996) show that living in a factory accommodation is the most secured housing system. According to them, a factory located in Rampura provides accommodation to 70 Garo (tribal people and minorities of Bangladesh) women workers. These workers are charged Tk.150 (US$3) for accommodation and Tk.300 (US$6) for food per month, which is very low even in the context of standard of living in Bangladesh. This means only US$9 for accommodation and food per month. This helps a worker on a minimum wage of US$10-18, to save at least US$1 to US$9 per month. Another factory located in Elephant Road provides free accommodation to 30 migrant workers of Pabna. Their findings suggest that entrepreneurs of the RMG sector have started to think about providing accommodation to their workers. However, according to Table 2, only 1.1% females in 1990 and 0.6% females in 1997 lived in factory accommodation. Their study does not show why the percentage decreased in seven years even though the authors claim factory accommodation to be the most secured housing system.
c. Group Housing or Mess
Many property owners are now interested in building mess for garment workers and the demand for these mess are on the rise (1996:93). However, living in the mess is quite insecure for women as these are owned by mastans or local touts. Women staying there, are often easy prey because of its motel-oriented atmosphere where anyone can stay overnight and disappear the following day. No one ensures security for the residents either. These messes are very crammed and there are no recreation facilities. According to Table 1 more male workers (33%) live in a mess environment than female workers (15%). This is probably because living alone for a young female worker, particularly unmarried females, is not only a taboo but also very insecure in Dhaka in general. Yet, Table 2 shows that women’s living in mess has almost doubled from 7.6% to 14.9% between 1990 and 1997 in Non-EPZ factories due to factory employment.
Table 2 Residence of Women Workers (Non-EPZ)
|Type of Residence||1990 (356 workers)||1997 (470 workers)|
|House (with family)||81.7||72.3|
Source: Zohir, S.C., 2000. Intra-household relations and social dynamics among garment workers in Dhaka City, Paper presented at the National Seminar on Garment Industry in Bangladesh: Economic and Social Dimensions, Dhaka, 21-22 January:13.
Masuda Khatun Shefali, Director of Nari Uddog Kendra (NUK) launched a project in 1991, with the financial support of the British High Commission in Dhaka, to accommodate women workers of RMG sector in hostels. Now the project houses 600 workers in four hostels in Mohakhali, Shaymoli, Mirpur and Rampura: four major areas in Dhaka where RMG factories are located. Each worker pays Tk.200 (US$4) in rent and Tk.30 for gas, electricity and water. Therefore, total rent is TK230. In the beginning, Tk.750 was charged for food per month but the system was dropped after women showed more interest in their individual arrangement. These hostels are in rented premises but Shefali hopes to build their own buildings by 2000 (Khanam 2000: 23). To do this, NUK is negotiating with the BGMEA for land and raised the issue with the Prime Minister. The hostels are very safe for the workers compared to the slum accommodation and group living arrangement in a mess.
Another major problem is transport in the city. Thousands of workers struggle to reach work daily, mostly on foot.
Table 3 Garment Workers Mode of Commuting, 1997 (per centage)
|Walk to work||57.9||68.9||7.4||7.6|
|Walk and rickshaw||3.7||7.0||3.7||3.3|
|Walk and bus||21.6||15.5||3.7||3.3|
Source: Zohir, S.C., 2000. Intra-household relations and social dynamics among garment workers in Dhaka City, Paper presented at the National Seminar on Garment Industry in Bangladesh: Economic and Social Dimensions, Dhaka, 21-22 January.
According to Table 3, more women (69%) walk to work than men (58%) in Non-EPZ factories, whereas workers in EPZ factories only 7.5% men and women walk to work. Table 3 itself explains the reason for this difference, showing that 78-80% workers use factory bus in EPZ factories but most Non-EPZ factories have no factory bus and thus workers walk and/or use public bus. Two decades ago, it was practically impossible to imagine women sharing public transportation with men since it was a taboo. Now it is an everyday event in the streets of Dhaka.
According to Khan (1993), buses are overcrowded and irregular and rickshaws are time-consuming. Moreover, in Dhaka rickshaws are not allowed to ply in some major roads where a number of garment factories are located. This also compels to walk. Zohir and Paul-Majumder (1996) have done an extensive study on transportation of garment workers. It is often said that workers are harassed. Harassment-related incidences are underreported. Zohir and Paul-Majumder (1996) found that attack by mastaans, harassment by police and harassment by men on the streets are reported by workers, but Hossain et al (1993) argue that attacks are underreported or not entered into registers. From the literature I derived the following research questions before going into the field for interviewing women workers.
The Research Questions
- What are the living conditions of the interviewed women workers?
- What do the workers say about their experiences of urban living in terms of housing, transportation and security?
- What do they want?
1. Interview based Narrative Approach
I interviewed women workers in Dhaka using narrative based in-depth interview without any set questionnaire. Women talked freely about their life and work. This asset is particularly important in the study of women because this way of learning from women is an antidote to centuries of ignoring women’s ideas altogether or having men speak for women.
2. Informant Selection
I interviewed 35 women workers. This range is significant considering the fact that I had to manage in-depth narratives of these women. Cannon et al (1988) argue that it is much more useful if the small samples under study are relatively homogeneous, since extreme diversity makes the task of identifying common patterns almost impossible.
Workers seemed busier than I was but once they began to talk and started to realise I was listening to them, they were more than willing to come for more interviews. I had to depend on the availability of the workers. Most of them work overtime till late at night (on a daily basis and often beyond 2:00 a.m.) and also on weekends. It was difficult to interview workers at night due to the odd hour itself plus due to insecurity of the city as a whole. Fatema, a middle-aged worker and a mother of three children told me, ‘No one has tried to understand or tried to listen to me the way you have. Not even my husband. I will always remember you and pray for you’.
3. Location Selection
I interviewed workers of Gulshan and Badda for two reasons: workers of these two areas have not been studied by using the narrative approach; and there is a high concentration of garment factories in these areas. I interviewed the workers outside their factory premises. The RMG sector is based on assembly line production system. The entire line of production depends on time management of each worker on the line. So I did not want to disrupt the production by interviewing workers on shop floors. The venue of the interview was fixed after introduction. The interviews were sometimes conducted in their houses, sometimes in mine and sometimes under the open sky. Interviews were carried out in places where the respondent felt comfortable.
4. Data Analysis
At the outset, I define the living conditions as inclusive of issues of (1) housing and sanitation and (2) transportation and commute security. I use these issues to analyse the narratives on living conditions.
5. Characteristics of interviewed women workers
I interviewed 35 women workers. Women workers vary in occupation, age, education level and wages. Table 4 shows that most of them are helpers, young, unmarried and illiterate. Out of 35 workers 28 are helpers, 4 operators, 2 sweepers and only one supervisor. The monthly wage ranges between US$13 to US$36. Seventy four percent of women are between the age group of 13 to 30 years and 46% are never married. It is alarming to note that 83% workers are illiterate.
Table 4 Women workers by occupation and wages
Occupation No. of Workers Wages (Tk) A$ US$
Sweeper 2 650 22 13
Helper 28 650-900 22-30 13-18
Operator 4 1100-1400 37-47 22-28
Supervisor 1 1800 60 36
Total 35 650-1800 22-60 13-36
Source: Fieldwork 1999
1. What are the living conditions of the interviewed women workers?
a. Housing and Sanitation
After we lost everything in the 1988 floods, we came to Dhaka. Since then we are here, in a bostee, and everyday is a problem. It is very difficult to live here because of the high cost of living. My village-home has gone under-water otherwise I would be living there. Runa, a factory helper
Women workers I interviewed call their living arrangement ‘bostee. Fatema, a factory helper, invited to me to her house, which is basically a small room in a bostee in Badda. I crossed the common premises of the residents to go to Fatema’s room. The premises plunged my feet into a pool of garbage which felt like a big clogged drain of filth. The room is hardly two square meters with a bed frame (with a chatai on top of it to serve the purpose of a mattress) and is used as a bed. The bed occupied almost all the space of the room leaving a narrow space for the placement of a bamboo shelf and a clay pitcher next to it. The pitcher contained drinking water. The racks of the shelf neatly held all the kitchen items Fatema and her family possess. All five members of Fatema live in this 2 square metre room. At night the door is closed. Fatema complained, ‘In hot summer and monsoon months it is very difficult and suffocating to live in such a small room though there is a ceiling fan’. The ceiling is very low and her children can touch the fan if they stand on the bed. Fatema’s accommodation and rent does not provide any kitchen, private bathroom or modern toilet.
I cook outside, just next to my entrance to the room. There is no shade. I cover my mud stove with a [broken] tin to protect it from the rain water. However, I cannot protect my room from the rain water. See, the monsoon makes my mud floor so muddy. I have to live like this with my children because I cannot afford the rent of rooms with cemented floors.
All 35 women collect water from the adjacent Badda/Gulshan Lake to cook, have shower and do their dishes and laundry. Women use a public latrine and have shower by the lake. Women pay US$20 per month for rent for such an accommodation (one room with no private or modern toilet or kitchen) out of their wages ranging between US$13-36 depending on their occupation level.
All 35 workers started developing health problems. They suffer from eye pain, headache, backache, flu, fever, cough, gastric, and general weakness. They identified long working hours, poor working condition, working by standing, and lack of adequate rest due to double burden of work at home and factory as reasons for their health problems. ‘Long hours of work and unsanitary conditions at home contribute to weakness and sickness (Afsar 1998: 3).’
According to all 35 workers, transportation is another major problem of living in Dhaka. Factory women walk. They form the silver lining of a road. A long, moving line. This is why they are so visible. For a person with a rental responsibility of Tk.800 for a room on a wage of Tk. 700-1000, it is more than essential to walk. At night women fear of getting raped. This adds mental stress to physical stress. Young or not-so-young, married or unmarried, pretty or not-so-pretty, smart or not-so-smart, all women of reproductive age, told me the same thing: that when they get off from work at night they fear men will stop them on dark roads and take away their izzat.
2. What do the workers say about their experiences of urban living in terms of housing, transportation and security?
A. Housing: Voice of Raj Banu
The government is evicting us today. I don’t know where I will go with my entire family after they will demolish my accommodation in the ‘bostee’. Apa, please ask the government to stop this action. I can’t afford to pay any more. Rent has gone up everywhere. Where will I go?
Raj Banu came with her grand son to talk to me. She was wearing clean clothes and simple jewellery showing signs of marriage and living husband. She was wearing plastic bangles, silver colour nose ring and orange colour sari with strapped sponge sandals. She looked very worried. It was early morning of Friday. Weekend. This is the only day she gets off from work. But she looked very worried. She began talking to me quite frankly. This was my second meeting with her.
“You want to know about our life. Our life is full of problems. Housing is the biggest problem. Today shorkar (government) is coming to evict us at 10:30 am. So we don’t have much time to talk to you. We don’t know what will happen to us after that.”
“Did you know that eviction will be carried out today?” I asked.
“Yes, we knew. We came to know through word of mouth. So some of us tried to manage a rental elsewhere.”
“Why are you being evicted?”
“Shorkar says it is someone else’s land. Shorkar has bought it. It wants to build big buildings there.”
“I don’t know. Probably buildings for the rich.”
“Have you managed a rental place for yourself?”
“I have looked at a few since I came to know that the entire bostee would be demolished. But the rent is very high. Still have to manage something. We have thirteen members in our family. We have to sleep somewhere tonight. Tomorrow I have to go to work at factory. I don’t know what I will do tomorrow.”
“How much is the rent for the place that you looked at ?”
“Thirteen hundred taka. My factory wage is Tk. 650. My son works. So we will have to manage somehow from his income. More difficult days are awaiting. He (the son) is married. We already live like this, hand to mouth. I can’t think about the rent these days. Everyday it is increasing. For poor people like us it is extremely difficult.”
B. Transportation and Commute Security: Voices of Aleya, Mahmuda, Farida and Fatema
Young women of same squatter settlement walk together in a group in the morning and at night to avoid unsolicited comments from strangers or advances often made toward girls of this age by male construction workers and rickshaw pullers. Their narratives present vivid picture of their mental state during commute.
My heart throbs. I can hear my heart beat in my ears. I walk very fast so that no man can inflict any harm on me.Aleya, a factory helper
I feel very scared in Dhaka, especially when I am on the roads. So heavy traffic! Any car might run over me anytime. This is the first time I have come to the city. All my life I lived in my village, in the same place. After coming to city I did not go out of doors for the first three months. I did not go out because whenever I saw any cars my heart started beating very fast. Mahmuda, a factory helper
I walk 4-5 miles everyday to work because I can’t afford the expenses of public transport. This is why I feel very tired everyday. Farida, a factory sweeper
Many factories are providing buses for transportation to and from factory. I wish our factory had factory buses. We have to walk back at night. Though we walk in a group we feel scared. Anything can happen.
3.What do women want?
Women want a solution to their basic problems of living in Dhaka. Without any direction from me, they have held meetings and came up with solutions which they want me to pass it on to the appropriate authority as they are not aware of the mechanism to approach the concerned authorities. Here are excerpts from their narratives:
“The rent is too high. Please help us with the rent,” said Shapna.
“Please provide proper housing at subsidised rent,” said Raj Banu.
“Please provide us [women workers] with factory housing,” said Lutfa.
“Many factories provide transportation. I would like to see my factory to provide transportation for all women workers, so that we are secure during our commute to work and home,” said Lutfa.
“I don’t mind working hard but if wages are paid in a way that we can live properly, be able to pay rent and eat properly, it would be of great help,” said Farida.
“Please increase the wages. Monthly wages of a worker should reflect the minimum cost of living of a poor person in Dhaka,” said Shibany.
From women’s narratives and academic literature, it is clear that women workers fight two enemies on two fronts: overall insecurity in life as a woman and poverty. Problems of living conditions affect women workers everyday. They face accommodation and transportation problems on a daily basis. In spite of all these problems they are reluctant to unionise. Instead of unionising themselves in masses, they have asked me to convey their messages to the proper authority so that they can live in better conditions in Dhaka. Their major demands circle around housing, transportation, security and wages. Working mothers with glittering eyes express their hope to offer a better life to their children.
Commerce and Industries Minister of the Bangladesh government, Tofail Ahmed, disclosed in a board meeting of the Export Promotion Bureau on August 25 1998, that the government is planning to set up garments palli (village) at Hemayetpur near Savar on an area of 17.33 acres of land (The Independent, August 26 1998:7, No.30).
In 1998, the then ‘BGMEA president Mostafa Golam Quddus said his organisation has a master plan to relocate the city’s garment factories in areas outside Dhaka city such as Savar, Gazipur and Daudkandi. “We will construct 80 big flats for the garment workers with an accommodation capacity of 4,000 workers in each building”(The Independent, October 23, 1998:13, No. 30).’ This means 320,000 workers out of 1.5 million would be accommodated. Another article (The Independent, September 17 1998:7, No. 30) reported on the same plan a bit differently: that this project is to be a joint collaboration between the BGMEA, the BRAC and the government to house 240,000 workers (not 320,000 workers). And the budget is US$40 million with construction work beginning in the middle of 1999 (The Independent, 1998:7, No.30). These announcements came after 300,000 garment workers were unable to attend their jobs during the floods of 1998 (The Independent, September 29: 1998)
I conveyed this information to the workers. However, as these projects are not for the workers living and working in the Gulshan/Badda area, their problems remain to be solved. More housing projects are needed and factory transport, proper lighting of commute paths and strict legal action against the criminals are essential for commute security of women workers.
Afsar, R. 1998. Poverty, work, health and sexual behaviour of women and men in garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh. ACTIONAID Bangladesh.
Bhattacharya and Rahman, M., 2000. Bangladesh Apparel Sector: Growth trends and the post-MFA challenges, Paper presented at the National Seminar on Garment Industry in Bangladesh: Economic and Social Dimensions, Dhaka, 21-22 January.
Hossain, H., Jahan, R. and Sobhan, S., 1993. No Better Option: Industrial Women Workers in Bangladesh, University Press Limited, Dhaka.
Independent, The, ‘Government plans to set up ‘garment palli’ near Savar: Tofail,’ August 26 1998:7, No.30, column 2-4.
Independent, The, ‘Garment owners will build houses for 2.4 lakh workers: BGMEA chief discloses plan in city,’ September 17 1998:7, No. 30, column 1-3.
Independent, The, ‘BGMEA expects to achieve export target for RMG: Production loss due to floods estimated at $172.57m,’ September 29, 1998:7, column 2-4.
Independent, The, ‘Women garment workers find renting a house more difficult than getting a job,’ October 23, 1998:13, No. 30, column 1-6.
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Kabeer, N., June 1991. ‘Cultural Dopes or Rational Fools? Women and Labour Supply in the Bangladesh Garment Industry’, European Journal of Development Research, 3 (1):133-160.
Khan, S., 1993. The Fifty Percent: Women in Development and Policy in Bangladesh. The University Press Limited, Dhaka.
Paul-Majumder, P. and Begum, S., October 1997. Upward Occupational Mobility among Female Workers in the Garment Industry of Bangladesh, Working Paper 153, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), Dhaka.
Paul-Majumder, P. and Begum, A., 2000. The gender impacts of growth of export-oriented manufacturing in Bangladesh: Case study: ready Made Garment Industry Bangladesh, A Background paper prepared by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) for the World Bank, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Zohir, S.C. and Paul-Majumder, P., 1996. The Garment Workers in Bangladesh: Economic, social and health conditions,. Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, Dhaka.
Zohir, S.C. 2000. Intra-household relations and social dynamics among garment workers in Dhaka City, Paper presented at the National Seminar on Garment Industry in Bangladesh: Economic and Social Dimensions, Dhaka, 21-22 January.