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By Bijoyeta Das
DHAKA (WNN)--After violent protests last year the Bangladeshi government nearly doubled the standard minimum wage for garment workers. The minimum wage is now $43 a month but even with this increase Bangladesh still has the lowest garment wages in the world.
With a population of 150 million, Bangladesh is the new sweatshop of the world. As cost of production increases in China, western retailers and clothing brands such as Gap, H&M and Zara are increasingly turning to Bangladesh.
Today the garment industry produces 10 % of the country’s GDP. And it has the lowest garment wages in the world. Most companies don’t comply by the minimum wage rule and con $15 to $18 a month. About 80% of the 3 million garment workers are women and children as young as 12.
Dhaka’s garment girls live in dismal conditions in one-room hand built shanties in the burgeoning slums of Dhaka. Yet each year more than half a million migrants come to Dhaka and most of the women join the garment sector.
The garment workers join the garment factories lured by dreams of financial independence but now it is nothing less than slavery. They are made to work for more than 10 hours a day, seven days a week.
Many women complain of harassment at the factories, both rude behavior and sexual assaults. In many cases women are attacked when they are returning home after night shifts. There is no insurance and no medical compensation. But the garment factories continue to lure hundreds of thousands of young girls and children each year.
They form the most recognizable and fast-growing class of garment workers, who disappear into the narrow lanes of Dhaka’s many slums. 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 said.
Both Lily and her husband work in the garment factories. 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. Even after working so hard, it is so tough.”
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 the 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 garment industry dream.
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Currently based in South Asia, WNN journalist Bijoyeta Das is also a talented photojournalist. She holds a masters degree in Journalism from Northeastern University Boston and has covered global women’s issues in the U.S., Turkey, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Her photojournalist essay, “Dreams of a Goddess” won the Silver Medal at the TashkentAle-2010 photo festival in Uzbekistan. Her short documentary film “Branded Girls” made finalist and and in a recent 2011 screening for the Women’s Voices Now Film Festival in Los Angeles, USA. In addition to WNN, Das’s work has also been published in Women’s eNews, New York and Deutsche Welle, Germany and has been aired on WAMC Northeast Public Radio and All India Radio.
©2011 Women News Network – WNN
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