Parul Begum was anxious as she sloshed through puddles towards the six-story factory with flaking plaster walls. It was almost 8 a.m. and she couldn’t afford to be late. Late three times, they dock a day’s pay.
Inside, almost 2,000 workers, mostly women, were making shirts – stitching, ironing, packaging. On each floor, they worked in 19 lanes, more than 100 to a lane. The air was dusty with lint so they all wore masks.
Welcome to the Aplus clothing factory in Dhaka, one of countless operations supplying garments for big brand names in the West. This factory makes shirts for men and women for major discount retail chains in Europe and the United States, though the owner declined to say which ones.
Among the 4 million working in Bangladesh’s booming clothing sector, those at Aplus can count themselves lucky. This is considered a “top factory”, meeting government health and safety standards and compliance codes set by buyers. Its workers earn overtime, annual vacations and maternity leave. It has a medical doctor on site.
But despite a salary of $63 a month – 66 percent above the basic industry wage, thanks to her 25 years of experience as a sewing machine operator – Parul can scarcely make ends meet. And every day is a 12-hour slog, since she needs to accumulate overtime to pay her bills. She’s 39 years old but looks older.
In Lane 13, Parul was sewing sleeves for casual shirts. She needed to sew a sleeve a minute, 60 an hour. A German buyer had ordered 450,000 shirts. If they missed their deadline, the factory would have to send the shirts by air at double the cost. Supervisors patrolled the lanes to monitor progress. Quality controllers checked the output.
It was hot. Fans hummed in open windows. Parul was looking frail.
By 11 a.m. she had sewn only 140 sleeves, 40 short of her quota. She was transferred to Lane 2, where everyone was frantically working on an order for 18,000 ladies shirts for delivery to the United States a week later.
BIG BRANDS, BIG BUSINESS
Big brand names like Tommy Hilfinger and the Gap outsource to Bangladesh. Clothing accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports and have risen five-fold in the past decade into a $21.5 billion industry.
Bangladesh is now the second-largest garment exporter by value in the world after China. Few countries can compete with its huge supply of cheap labour and infrastructure, so foreign companies stay in the face of intensifying criticism of unsafe and exploitative working conditions.
Those criticisms reached fever pitch in April when the Rana Plaza complex just outside Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,130 people, mostly garment workers who had been told to return to work despite visible cracks in the structure.
But there is little sign that foreign companies have withdrawn business from Bangladesh. Garment exports rose strongly in June and are up 13 percent over the year, government data show. It’s hard to beat Bangladesh’s labour costs, which are falling in real terms and, adjusted for the cost of living, are 27 percent below nearest rival Cambodia, according to Center for American Progress/Workers Rights Consortium data.
The world’s largest fashion retailers, Inditex SA, owner of the Zara chain, and H&M, are the biggest customers in Bangladesh. Europe buys about 60 percent of its apparel exports while the United States buys less than 25 percent.
After the Rana Plaza disaster, 70 European firms have signed a pact to better monitor and improve safety standards at the factories where they outsource, and U.S. firms have followed suit with their own accord. But clothing retailers have signed pacts before to little avail.
Parul ate lunch at 1:30 p.m., sitting on the floor in the women’s canteen. The factory supplies no food and all the tables and chairs were taken. Forty-five minutes later, she was back at work.
By afternoon, the garment workers were tiring. For the next six hours, Parul worked on, pausing only for some water.
Tamiz Uddin Ahmed, the factory’s chief executive officer, takes pride in supplying clean drinking water. He ferries it to work in his Toyota. “We collect the water from a deep well, put it in a jar and bring to the factory every day,” he said.
A doctor and two nurses are available during working hours and visits are free, a company official said. Parul has only visited the factory doctor once. She feared management might deduct money from her salary, though she does not know whether they have. She can’t read.
The Aplus offices closed at 5 pm but the first batches of garment workers didn’t finish until 7 p.m. Parul was asked to stop sewing and help a fellow worker by carrying away the stitched items for the final hour.
She didn’t leave work until 8:00 pm. It was dark outside. Still, she felt it was a lucky day. Her eldest daughter, Jesmin, would be waiting for her at home with her two nieces. There would a family dinner of gourd, pulse and rice.
Home is a tiny room in a tin-shed shanty in the glitzy Pallabi Extension area on the northern outskirts of Dhaka, about 1 kilometre and a half from the factory. The shanty has three rows, each containing six rooms, each housing four to six people. About 30 residents on each row share two toilets, one bathroom and two stoves with gas connection.
Parul was 14 years old and destitute when she first came to Dhaka with her two sisters and brother in 1988. A flood had swept away her family’s small plots of land and all their possessions in Barisal district, some 250 kilometers southwest from the capital.
She took a job in a garment factory for a monthly salary of Tk 150 and married a dye worker a year later. Her career coincided with the explosive growth of the ready-made garment business in Bangladesh. Her brother also is a dye worker and lives in Dhaka with his family, while her younger sister is a housemaid in Saudi Arabia.
All was well until her husband had an affair. “When he left us, I was out of work because of illness,” said Parul. “My second daughter took a job in an embroidery shop and that was how we had to live -- almost every day, half-fed.”
Jesmin is Parul’s best hope for a better future. She has completed the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in English at the madrasa and is promised a teaching job. If she gets it, Parul said her family will move to a better house.
The only bed in the small room can hold three people at best. The others must sleep on the cement floor. The plates, glasses, cooking pots and drinking jars are placed beneath the bed to keep some space open to dine, sleep, pray and play the board game Ludo in their leisure time, if there is any.
The table has an old Royal brand TV. The rest of the furniture consists of a plastic chair and two drums for keeping rice and other food items. Parul can’t afford the monthly TV satellite connection fee of Tk 300 ($3.75), or nearly two days wages.
No light enters the room and the little window on the side of the aisle allows very little air to pass through. Upon entering, a visitor is greeted by an odd, goatish smell, created by so many people living in the congested space. The only ceiling fan often is stilled by frequent electricity outages.
Daily life for Parul is punctuated by queuing, whenever she needs to cook food, go to the toilet or even when she brushes her teeth.
Out of her salary, Parul sends Tk1,000 each month to support her mother in her village. She spends TK1,800 on rent, Tk 700 on medicine and the rest goes on food. The small room in the slum costs Tk 3,100 but Parul shares costs with her two nieces.
“It’s really tough to maintain the family budget,” Parul said. “Whenever someone gets sick I have to cut our food budget.”
After dinner, she swallowed three tablets: a painkiller, an anti-inflammatory drug and a gastric and ulcer drug. A pharmacist had recommended she take them to sooth her aching body. She didn’t have the money to visit a doctor.
Parul can barely sign her name. She doesn’t have a bank account, let alone any savings. She said she had considered working as a housemaid, the lowest ranking occupation in Bangladesh, but dropped the plan out a sense of dignity.
“If I work as a housemaid, I know I will not get a good groom for my daughter,” she said.
What did she think when the Rana Plaza collapsed? Did she consider quitting?
“When you hear something like this it obviously creates panic,” Parul said. “But we can’t leave the job just because of this.”