After violent protests last year, the Bangladeshi government nearly doubled garment wages. The minimum wage is now 3,000 taka, about 30 euros a month, but Bangladesh still has the lowest garment wages in the world.
Lily Begum migrated to Dhaka to work in the garment factories
Every evening at 8, the streets of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka are full of women and girls as young as 12, dressed in traditional cotton salwar kameez and saris, heads covered, carrying small handbags, and walking in a hurry. They form the recognizable and fast-growing class of garment workers who disappear into the narrow lanes of Dhaka’s many slums.
About 80 percent of the three million garment workers in Bangladesh are women. They all have similar stories - there were no jobs in their villages so they migrated to Dhaka.
Like 30-year-old Lily Begum who arrived 11 years ago. "We did not have any farmland in the village, no work, so we came here and joined the garment industry," she explains.
Garment workers returning on the streets of Dhaka
Barely making ends meet
Lily Begum has just finished an eight-hour shift; in the next two hours she will cook for the family, take care of the children and return for the night shift. On her way home, she stops at the local market.
She says she tries hard to save by cutting down on the grocery list. She avoids meat and fish, buying only cheap vegetables such as potatoes. "In today’s economy, with the money we earn it is impossible to survive," she complains, adding that even after working so hard, life is still tough.
Lily's family lives in one room, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with seven other families. Clothes are neatly hung from strings on the walls. Utensils, extra mattresses and a sack of rice are kept under the wooden bed. A small television sits on a steel cupboard that contains cups, plates, bangles and school textbooks.
A job "not meant for humans"
Muhammad Nizam is her husband. He says, "Six people live in one room: me, my mother, my 15-year-old daughter, my wife and another paying guest. I don’t think that we will ever be able afford two rooms. I have to send money to my family in the village, support my father and my brothers and sisters. Every year, our wages increase by 100 or 200, maximum 300 but the rent goes up by 500 taka."
Muhammad Nizam, his mother and two children in their one room house
Nizam wants to make sure that his children get a chance to study so they don't have to work in garment factories when they get older. He says, "this is not a job meant for humans. Working in the garment factory is like living in a prison. We are always at risk; there can be a fire or accident any time."
Every night either Lily or her husband works the night shift to bring in some extra cash, but she says she still cannot feed her family. That's why she wants to go back to her village, maybe start up a poultry farm and send her children to school.
The dream to spend more time with her children in her village has replaced Lily Begum's dream of working in the garment industry.
Author: Bijoyeta Das
Editor: Anne Thomas