Women Suffer Most in Garment Sweatshops in Bangladesh

By Tabibul Islam

DHAKA - Her dark eyes revealing great anxiety, Marian Begum, a 27 year old garment worker in the Bangladesh capital says she has moved house three times this year with her two children.

She shifted out of the first house because it was only a shelter in name, with no ventilation or toilet and no space for cooking, she says. But she was back househunting for a third timebefore very long to escape the sexual advances of neighbouring men.

Now the young widow has rented a corner of the tin-shed home of a distant cousin. But at least ''i am living in dignity and safety,'' Marian says.

Rents are steep in Bangladesh. Even a tin-shed can be beyond the means of factory workers and daily wagers who earn like Marian about 2,000 takas (38 dollars) per month.

Rural women who flock to the poorly-paying, monotonous and uncertain jobs in garment sweatshops in and around Dhaka end up living in squalid dormitory-type accommodation, 10 to 15 girls in one room.

The wretched living and working conditions take their toll of workers' health. A great majority of the estimated 1.5 million, mainly female, workers in some 3,000 garment factories across the country are at risk, according to several studies.

Long factory working hours, between 10 and 12 hours and seven days a week, in addition to the burden of household work and bringing up children, make them more vulnerable to disease.

Nari Uddug Kendra or the women's initiative centre, a non- governmental organisation with links to the North-South Institute in Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) which conducted a study of 1,720 mainly women workers found convincing evidence of their health having worsened.

As many as 68 percent of the women complained of weakness and lethargy, which is related to long hours of work, according to doctors. The second most prevalent problem was gastric ulcers generally related to low incomes and irregular eating.

Chest pain, backaches, eye trouble, headaches and joint pain were other common occupational ailments.

In addition women were found to be more prone to urinary infections, according to the study conducted in March - a direct result of their lack of access to toilets at work and restrictions on the number of times they are allowed to take short breaks.

Nearly three quarters of the 43 garment factories covered by the study were found to be short of toilets for workers. In addition, only a third of factory owners paid workers to see a doctor if they were sick at the workplace, although the workershave to pay for the medicines themselves.

As a result the majority of workers said only when they were to ill to move did they take leave, while most women looked surprised when they were told that they were entitled to maternity leave under Bangladesh labour laws.

Exploited at work, and living in wretched poverty, many women workers have succumbed to prostitution to make some extra money, another survey on sexual behaviour of women and men in garment factories has revealed.

Sexual harassment is common place in garment factories and women are threatened with dismissal if they speak out. The study conducted by Action Aid Bangladesh, a British NGO, estimates at least 20 percent of women workers were engaging in sex at the workplace.

Even the journey to and from the workplace is fraught with danger. Women workers run the risk of rape and harassment.

The study revealed an alarming lack of awareness of safe sex practices and the likely spread of the HIV/AIDS disease. Sexually transmitted diseases (STD) are widespread. The number of infected people stood at 2.3 million at the end of 1996, according to official estimates.

The report also found a large number of young male workers - migrants from the country's villages - in homosexual relationships, a taboo among orthodox Muslims.

''Nothing tangible has been done to change our lot although a large chunk of the country's export earnings come from the garment sector,'' lamented Sheikh Nazma, president of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Sramik Union.

Asked what was the Union's main demand, she said housing was a major concern. ''I think solution to the accommodation crisis is one of our major demands.''

Now workers are wondering if they should take seriously an assurance made by the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers' and Exporters Association (BGMEA) whose president Mostafa Golam Quddus recently said factory owners had prepared a master plan to relocate to several areas outside Dhaka.

''We will construct 80 high-rise buildings for garment workers with an accommodation capacity of 4,000 families in each building,'' he said.

What the reasons behind this sudden generosity are is not clear.