DHAKA // About 15 years ago, when Rusy had had enough of her husband's philandering, she did something that would have been unthinkable for her mother's generation: she left him. Without education or money, Rusy, 35, took her mother and young son to Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, where she joined the millions of low-wage, low-skilled female garment workers, who make up 80 per cent of the country's largest export industry and are the backbone of its wage-earning class.
The mass employment of young women in this conservative Muslim country, who before the 1980s led predominantly sheltered lives, effected what many observers have characterised as a "silent revolution" for women's rights. But their increased social agency came at a high price: low wages, dangerous conditions, long working hours and few opportunities for advancement. Now, the women whose working lives were once a blunt instrument of social change are bearing the brunt of the country's escalating problems. Real wages have fallen dramatically over the past several months as rising food prices have squeezed the lowest-paid workers.
"I'm the only wage-earner in my family," Rusy said. "It is becoming difficult to continue my son's education. I'm struggling to educate him. If the prices increase further, we will really have nothing to do. We're helpless." Last month, the World Bank said that food prices in Bangladesh, which rose by 14.1 per cent last year according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, have pushed four million people below the poverty line. They joined the 40 per cent of the population who already live on less than US$1 (Dh3.67) per day. The Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue estimates that spending power for Bangladesh's poorest has eroded by 36.7 per cent from Jan 2007 to March 2008.
Meanwhile, prices for ready-made garments on the global market have levelled out, resulting in a profit crunch that has further increased the pressure on workers' pay, as prices of essential commodities rise dramatically. "That is really disquieting for us that we are now seeing an international market where the [prices of] commodities that we are purchasing, and that workers also have to consume, are growing exponentially, but the [prices of] products that they are producing are really stagnating," said Mustafizur Rahman, an industry analyst and executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
"That's why the wages cannot go up, because the prices are not increasing in the market so the entrepreneurs cannot raise wages." Discontent over static wages has led to violent protests, or hartals, this summer. Last month, dozens of protesters were injured when about 10,000 workers from eight factories in Gazipur, a town north of Dhaka, clashed with the police. The workers, according to Agence France-Presse, were demonstrating against the arrest of 23 activists, who had previously been arrested while agitating for higher wages.
The weakness of Bangladesh's labour unions is one reason why factory employees often turn to violence instead of negotiations, analysts said. As prices rise, such riots are becoming bloodier and more frequent. The rising cost of food and fuel has already negated one of the few triumphs of the country's labour movement. In late 2006, after violent protests in factories in Dhaka's export zones, the government set the country's minimum wage at 1,662 taka (Dh89) per month.
"A new wage scale was negotiated for them, which increased the basic salary of the new entrant worker by about 60 to 70 per cent. But in terms of the purchasing power, as of now, obviously there has been serious erosion," Mr Rahman said. "But they are still working because we don't have other opportunities in Bangladesh." The price of rice, which makes up about 40 per cent of a low-wage worker's expenses, has increased 100 per cent in three years and by 70 per cent to 80 per cent over the past year. Political instability and violent workers' protests may also spark safety concerns among firms about Bangladesh as a destination for garment investments.
But Bangladesh's garment industry has weathered such volatile storms in the past. Garment-making blossomed in Bangladesh because of the country's exemption from the 1974 Multi-Fibre Agreement, which placed restrictions on the amount of textiles and garments that developing countries could export to the developed world. Exporters, such as South Korea, moved their operations to the impoverished country during the late 1980s and 1990s. The intervening years saw exports grow to $6.4 billion in 2006 from $69,000 in 1978.
It also turned the employment of young women into an economic expedient that was impossible for many poor families to ignore. "When this garment industry started in Bangladesh, it gave an opportunity to women," said Shirin Akhter, the president of Karmojibi Nari, a Bangladeshi labour rights organisation that focuses on female workers. "Women from rural to urban areas, who migrated only for their livelihood - and who were really, totally in a situation where, as we say, 'hard-core poor' - they came to urban areas for job opportunities and the [ready-made garment] sector gave those women this opportunity. These women are young, they are not literate and they are taking responsibility for their families."
When the Multi-Fibre Agreement, which was originally intended as a short-term measure to prepare industrialised countries for an influx of foreign garments from developing nations, was rolled back in 2005, industry analysts expected Bangladesh's export business to go belly-up as manufacturers relocated closer to home. Non-governmental organisations braced for hundreds of thousands of uneducated women to lose their jobs and many expected an increase in the number of prostitutes. Instead, exports from Bangladesh actually increased after the end of the MFA, even as international prices for garments declined.
Bangladesh was able to stay afloat by touting one of its strongest selling points: a labour surplus that gives it some of the lowest wages in the garment industry worldwide. "We have proven that prices, quality and the commitment are maintained by the [ready-made garment] entrepreneurs in this country," said Anwar ul Alam Chowdhury, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Export Association.
"We have plenty of people, 150 million people, and our economy is based on the [ready-made garment] sector. So the government's whole effort and support are on this sector. So as a matter of fact as long as there are too many people, we believe that we will remain competitive for a longer period." The main risk to the Bangladeshi garment industry and the millions who rely on it, said Mr Chowdhury, is political instability.
Since late 2006, the country has been run by a non-partisan caretaker government that the Bangladeshi constitution had tasked with calling and administering parliamentary elections. In Jan 2007, the caretaker government secured support from the military to remain in power. For the past 18 months, the regime has overseen a broad clean-up of Bangladeshi politics, jailing thousands of politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and criminals, who were thought to be behind the country's massive system of machine-style politics.
Added to the threat of political instability are continuing demonstrations by garment workers demanding more pay and improved conditions. The history of the Bangladeshi garment industry is dotted with lethal factory fires and building collapses, especially at the thousands of factories that try to cut costs by not getting a licence. In one of the most notorious incidents, 64 workers were killed and 80 injured when a poorly constructed factory north of Dhaka collapsed in 2005.
Although Mr Chowdhury and Mr Rahman are optimistic about the future for Bangladesh's garment industry, workers like Rusy fear they will remain powerless to improve their dismal lots. "Women do not raise their voices. They submit to whatever the employers say. We are just weak," Rusy said. "The employers pay no heed to our protests. It has to come out in the media." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org