Disasters inject fear into Bangladesh factory life

TEKANI, Bangladesh – Twice a year, buses filled with garment workers come rumbling into Tekani, shaking the houses made of mud and tin, and alerting villagers that their loved ones are home for the holidays.

Wearing outfits bought specially for the Muslim Eid festival, they cut a striking image of success in a village where most own no land, have no steady jobs and are among the poorest people in one of the poorest regions of one of the world’s poorest countries.

Three days later, the buses begin the nine-hour ride back to suburban Dhaka, creeping along the same narrow road covered with drying rice husks and jutted with potholes. The workers are invariably joined by hundreds of fresh recruits from Tekani and its sister villages who will work alongside them in factories making clothing worn around the globe. They are the fuel that powers a $20 billion garment industry that is the world’s third-largest.

Mosammat Almuna Begum once dreamed of sending her 21-year-old daughter on one of those buses. No longer.

“It’s better to stay hungry here,” she said. “There is no safety there.”

Pushed by poverty and pulled by the hope of a better life, Tekani people have for almost a decade been making the trip south to Dhaka. But with neighbors and relatives killed and maimed in the factory fire in November, and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in April, terror has overtaken this village of about 1,800 people in far northwestern Bangladesh. Many question whether the industry’s shaky promise is worth the sacrifice.

Before the disasters, which together claimed 1,241 lives, five to 10 people from Tekani would leave every month for the garment factories. Now, villagers say they know of no person planning to make the trip soon, and many who had left want to come back.

“They’re scared of staying there now,” said Mohammad Ashraful. The market vendor was on a trip home from Dhaka, where he lives with his wife, a garment worker who wanted to leave the industry.

“Maybe it will pass,” he said. “I’m not sure.”

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Tekani’s green and amber fields stretch to each horizon, a lush inland sea of rice, corn and other crops ripening under the tropical sun. The small, raised road that cuts through the paddies leads to shady orchards, branches weighed down with mangoes and jackfruit.

Despite this bounty, Tekani has never been able to offer its people what they want most: jobs.

When global garment manufacturers turned to Bangladesh for cheap labor and factories started springing up around Dhaka, Tekani residents finally had an alternative to staying in a village that doesn’t even have electricity.

Now 4,000 of the roughly 25,000 people who live in Tekani and nine other nearby villages have left for garment work, said Nur Alom, the area’s elected chairman. Sixty percent are women.

“This is 100 percent for economic reasons, and this is positive,” he said. “Many people have no land and it is difficult to get by here.”

The attraction is clear: Factory work is easy to get and requires no skills; the factories will hire and train almost anyone. In turn, manufacturers get to draw on the massively underutilized workforce in this densely populated nation of 160 million, one willing to toil for a minimum wage that even today is equivalent to just $38 a month.

Experienced workers get more money, and overtime pay is common, but even particularly skilled garment workers rarely make more than $100 a month.

In Tekani farm work is low-paid and seasonal. Younger people, especially those now finishing all 10 years of free schooling, see it as beneath them.

Some start small businesses here, if they have the money, or travel each day to more populated areas to do manual labor or pull rickshaws.

But those who dream of upward mobility head to the factories. “Office work,” they call it.

“It is a matter of pride,” Alom said.

Kulsuma Begum, who came home two years ago to give birth to her youngest son, hopes that when he is older she can return to the industry. Her brother and cousin worked in Tazreen and survived the fire, but she doesn’t think every factory is bad.

“That life was better for me,” the 25-year-old said. “I used to get cash at the end of every month. But that isn’t the case here.”

Bangladesh’s garment boom has been accompanied by accusations of worker exploitation, abuse and a disregard for basic safety. Factory owners are so powerful that garment workers are unable to form unions, which are common in other Bangladeshi industries.

During the Tazreen fire last November, workers were locked inside the factory as it burned, killing 112. After cracks were discovered in Rana Plaza in April, managers ordered workers inside despite officials saying they should be evacuated. An hour later the building, which had several illegal floors and was not designed to holdfactory equipment, collapsed, killing 1,129.

Since the collapse — the world’s deadliest garment industry disaster — the government is considering raising the minimum wage and is proposing an amendment to the labor law. Activists are skeptical and say pressure for true change must come from foreign retailers and their customers.

Some villagers in Tekani hold out hope that changes are coming, but the fear of factory work is strong. Alom, the local official, believes the factory buses won’t be returning to Dhaka full after the next Eid holiday in August.

“It won’t be the same,” he said.

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For the garment workers who leave Tekani, homesickness is constant.

It greets them in the morning when they rise before dawn to cook their meals. It follows them as they wade through often flooded streets to the gates of their factory. It hangs over them as they sit behind their sewing machines and their eyes and hands grow weary from the repetition. It comes to bed with them as they go to sleep.

They miss the fruit, the fields, the fresh air. But most of all they long for the family and friends they have left behind.

“I love everything that we have in the village,” 21-year-old Mosammat Shabana Begum said. “Here nobody cares if I am hungry or not, if I am sick. But in my village, my neighbors look after us if we are sick, if we have any problem.”

Tears well in the eyes of her friend, 22-year-old Mosammat Angura Begum.

“We miss our home. We miss our parents. And of course our daughters,” she said.

The women and their husbands left Tekani and their children three years ago for work in Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka with hundreds of garment factories. They joined an army of garment workers that numbers 3.6 million strong nationwide, more than 80 percent of them women.

In the hour before the factories open, Ashulia’s streets grow jammed with garment workers in a rainbow of clothing colors. They walk, bike, bus and rickshaw past shops advertising Butterfly and Singer Plus sewing machines and billboards hawking factory space.

When the factories close late at night, the workers retreat to rooms in barrack-like buildings that have sprung up off tiny lanes. By 11:30 p.m., Ashulia finally grows quiet.

It is amid this silence that Angura’s thoughts turn inward.

“Many things come to my mind. Most of the time I feel bad,” she said, sitting on the double bed inside the barren concrete room she and her husband rent, a mosquito net and ceiling fan overhead. “I think about how I don’t have any better choice. Even if I am sick, I feel bad or there is a storm outside, I have to go to work. I think how I need to make some quick money so that I can go home soon.”

The couple’s combined monthly salary of about 10,000 takas (about $130) goes quickly, for rent, utilities, food and household goods. On a good month they can save 2,500 takas (about $32).

But Angura has learned there is no such thing as fast or easy money. Rather than the riches she and her husband once dreamed of, they have found that once again they are struggling to get by and once again they are suffering.

They sew every day from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. — making clothes for chains such as Gap, H&M and Old Navy — but their day starts long before that.

Angura wakes near 5 a.m. to cook breakfast and lunch on primitive, wood-fired stoves dug into the ground. The couple eats mostly rice and vegetables, fish if affordable. After work, she makes dinner, washes clothes by hand and does other chores. They are in bed by midnight.

“We live a life like a machine,” Angura said.

But a machine wouldn’t be plagued by fear, haunted by the fire, the collapse and the chaos that has broken out around her. Ashulia is on edge as garment workers demanding better pay and safer workplaces repeatedly clash with police and with thugs hired by factory owners.

“My mind is broken, frankly,” Angura said. “I never felt like this before. When workers fight outside with police, when police attack us, local hooligans threaten us, you know, I just want to flee. Nowadays I am always of two minds about whether to stay. Owners often file cases against workers after any violence. Police patrol this area. What will happen if I am the victim, if my husband is taken away by police? This is not normal. It is killing me inside.”

This is not the life Angura and her friend Shabana wanted for themselves as little girls back in Tekani. But the harsh reality of poverty and local culture left scant time for childhood dreams. Shabana’s were taken from her before she was 12, when she was wed to her husband, five years her senior.

“I wanted to study, but my parents married me off and everything just stopped there. I stopped going to school. I started a new life,” Shabana said. “And now I am here.”

Despite the disasters, the misery and the homesickness of their daily lives, the women and their husbands still don’t return to Tekani.

They worry what their neighbors will say. Will there be laughs and snickering that it was all a waste, that they couldn’t hack it?

Where will they work? Isn’t some money better than none?

So they stay, hoping wages and conditions will somehow improve. Angura prays her daughter will be spared from this work.

“I just want her to study and get a job so that she doesn’t need to suffer like me.”

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Mosammat Samira Khatun is angry at the toll the garment industry has taken on her village and her family.

“I think we haven’t gotten anything but pain,” the 14-year-old said.

Her oldest sister, Rabeya Begum Laisu, went to work in garment manufacturing two years ago. When the Tazreen fire killed a neighbor, her family urged her to come home. She said she would, at the end of April, for at least a month.

“She said she would have mangoes with me and pass the time with us all,” recalled her mother, Khadeja Begum.

On April 24, she was sewing on the second floor of the Rana Plaza building when it collapsed and killed her. She was 28.

Her sister said she understands why women take up garment work — for such simple freedoms as being able to buy cosmetics or treat an illness they previously couldn’t.

Still, she doesn’t think it is worth the sacrifice.

“Staying there, struggling there, this is not decent,” she said.

She said the village women are taking more control of their lives, learning about reproductive health and the problems of child marriage.

Samira and her schoolmates often talk of their dreams, and they want more than the women they see boarding the buses every year. Some want to be teachers or work for aid groups. None want to risk their lives in a garment factory.

“We are different than the older generation,” Samira explained. “They did not have the chance to go to school and learn the way we learn now. Now the opportunities have expanded.”

Samira, who is second in her class in school, plans to become a doctor.

“I want to be near home and to help those near here,” she said.

She knows Laisu would want that for her.

“She always looked after me. She always asked how I am doing. She was just like my friend,” Samira said, tears in her eyes. “She wanted me to continue my studies so that I could get a better job than she had.”

Her mother said the family is determined to help Samira realize her dream and they are adamant that none among them will take the factory bus again.

“We need money,” she said, “but money isn’t everything.”

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Associated Press writer Julhas Alam contributed to this report.