For Bangladeshi Women, Factory Work Is Worth the Risks

A survivor of a factory fire sees a better future for her daughter
Akhter with her daughter, Riza, next to the shed they call home Photograph by Mehul Srivastava

To give her daughter opportunities neither she nor her mother had, Nazma Akhter made the only choices possible for a poor, illiterate woman in Bangladesh. She fled her village, bolting the door behind her so her mother couldn’t chase her down. She moved to Dhaka, the capital, and began living in a shed the size of a parking space. She worked 12-hour days making jeans, T-shirts, and dresses, earning no more than $98 a month.

The income was just enough to allow Akhter to bring her family to Dhaka and put her daughter, Riza, in school. Then, on Nov. 24, 2012, a fire broke out in the Tazreen Fashions factory where Akhter worked. The blaze killed 112 of her co-workers. A worse disaster followed. On April 24 last year, 1,129 perished when the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed.

For Akhter, who guesses she’s in her early thirties, the fallout from Tazreen has been severe. She unravels her sari to show the scar on her back from hours of surgery after she jumped out of the building, falling two stories, to escape the fire. She still can’t work. But she says she’d do it all again if it meant that Riza, now 10 and an excellent student, could get a good education and a shot at an office job—the girl’s dream. Nothing could be further from the life lived by Akhter’s mother, who still pulls stalks of rice in paddy fields. “God, she worked so hard,” says Akhter, whispering in the shed as her three children sleep in the afternoon heat. “My mother couldn’t stand straight anymore. I couldn’t live like that. I couldn’t make my daughter live like that.”

The paradox of Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry, where substandard practices have resulted in the deaths of at least 2,000 people since 2005, is that it’s virtually the only way for the nation’s women and girls to claw their way out of poverty and illiteracy. For some 3.5 million Bangladeshis, mostly women, the 10-hour shifts spent hunched over a sewing machine offer a once-in-a-generation chance to better their lives.

In 2011 about 12 percent of Bangladeshi women ages 15 to 30 worked in the garment industry, according to a study by Rachel Heath of the University of Washington and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak of Yale University’s School of Management. Pay was 13 percent greater than in other industries that rely on manual labor. Perhaps most important, the researchers found, 27 percent more young girls were attending school than before the garment industry existed.

Young as she is, Riza, a poetry-obsessed math whiz, understands that her mother’s job was an essential step in her family’s quest for security and prosperity. “Tell me something,” she asks. “Do offices catch fire like factories do? Because I want to work in an office someday.”

For Bangladesh, a nation dismissed by Henry Kissinger as a “basket case” after its violent birth in 1971, and which has since endured several political coups and uprisings, garment making has been a godsend. It now accounts for 6 percent of gross domestic product and last year made up almost 80 percent of exports. “Don’t forget that this industry has allowed Bangladesh to cut poverty by a third. Don’t forget that it has created milions of jobs. Don’t forget that it has helped put more young girls in school than ever before,” says Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director general of the International Labour Organization, which has funneled millions of dollars in the past year into inspections of Bangladeshi factories. “On the other hand, you can’t do that at the expense of women’s basic rights—the right to feel safe, to be safe, to have decent work environments.”

On a steamy afternoon, Akhter relives the day she almost died. She waves with her hands as she describes the smoke filling the air on her floor of the factory. She feigns a limp to demonstrate how her leg was stuck in a pile of bodies. Suddenly she starts howling, the memories still sharp. The cries awaken Riza as neighbors crowd into the shed to hear the story. The girl slips off of a thin sheet on the floor and starts putting things in her school bag, even though classes are over for the day. Three notebooks, a small box with a pencil, a sharpener and half an eraser, a book of Bengali grammar, and an empty lunchbox barely fit into her used Hannah Montana backpack.

She walks 10 minutes to her school. The yard is empty, the gates chained shut. She slips through, bag strapped to her chest, barely making it through the gap. It’s quiet there, she says. She wiggles back out with a small box in her hand—her secret collection of pencils that she’s won from friends in spelling contests and keeps hidden in her desk. “Look at all the colors,” Riza says, rolling her hands through the red and green pencils in the knockoff Disney box.

Back in the shed, the normally chatty Akhter goes quiet when money is mentioned. For months after the blaze, the family lived on handouts from the government and local charities totaling about $2,200. Now, she says, she and her invalid husband borrow money from neighbors, convinced they will be able to pay back the debt after the factory owner is convicted and more compensation is paid out. She bases the theory mostly on rumors from other survivors of the fire. Riza’s school has offered a one-year reprieve from fees while her mother recovers. Akhter reaches into a small plastic bag, pulls out an old newspaper, and points to a picture of Delwar Hossain, the factory owner whose conviction she awaits. He’s a short, stocky man with a full beard and thinning head of hair.

A day after Akhter curses his name, Hossain is sitting in a hot, barricaded office on the top floor of another of his factories, sweat rolling off his forehead. Outside, a crowd of women has gathered on the factory floor, shouting insults and pelting the door with the metal parts of sewing machines. When the workers showed up that morning, they found all the supplies had been removed, as had most of the machinery. Hossain, they say, was shutting the factory down without warning and would vanish without paying them. About 800 women have locked themselves inside the factory, demanding back pay and severance.

“I don’t have any money,” Hossain says, while waiting for the police to rescue him. “Ever since Tazreen, I have lost all my contracts. I owe the bank so much money, they must have come in and taken the supplies and the machines.” In February a Bangladeshi court charged Hossain and his wife with homicide for the 2012 deaths. He pleaded not guilty, and the trial has yet to begin.

Of her three children, Riza gives Akhter the greatest hope. Her oldest son, Rashid, 11, works at a tea shop down the road and wants to drive an auto rickshaw. The youngest boy has barely begun his education. Riza is special, says her school principal, Rahima Begum. “How hardworking she is,” says Begum, standing in the school courtyard while Riza’s class chants multiplication tables in Bengali. “Look at her, she’s leading the class. She can multiply all the way to 50 already.”

The day before, Riza had been scheduled to read her poems at a competition in central Dhaka. She never made it: A protest over working conditions at garment factories blocked the roads. So, four days later, 80 classmates have gathered to hear her read the poems into a microphone her principal borrowed from a marriage hall.

Riza wears a white-and-blue-checked uniform. Her hair is washed, oiled, and braided into two tight loops held together by a red ribbon. Her brother has polished her shoes, and she has rearranged her socks so the holes face away from the audience.

Riza has visited her parents’ village just once. She met her grandmother but hasn’t spoken to her since because no one in her family has a phone. Her grandmother can’t read or write, so Riza isn’t sure if the weekly letters she writes are reaching her. She has received a reply three times, each written by an uncle. Her poem reveals nostalgia for a life where her mother and her family are intact and unhurt:

In our small village, the houses are
small, everyone lives together, and
no one is an outsider

All the children in our neighborhood
are like brothers and sisters. …

Our small village is like our mother.
She keeps us alive with her light
and air