International Women’s Day is a humbling reminder of the suffering working class women of the developing world experience in employment and the poverty that prematurely forces girls into the struggles of womanhood
Part One: Between Industrial Sweatshops and Domestic Sweatshops*
On my recent trip to Bangladesh, my intention was to document the plight of the female housemaids in the capital, Dhaka. The interest stemmed from a disposition that was not without preconceptions. My memory is cast back to the mid-nineties where the distinction between servant and master/mistress was only too apparent, even to my young eyes. Servants dressed in clothes that are distinctly shabby or cheap, would eat, sleep and live in separate quarters and would even have cutlery distinct from their employees. A clear culture of separation prevailed and was taken for granted. The words of one particular servant continue to haunt me to this day: “Are we not human too?”
However, upon my visit this time, I noticed a surprising change. The homes in Dhaka city were experiencing a shortage of servants, and a single cause was being identified with this shortage – the rise in the numbers of garment factories. With Western brands increasingly outsourcing production to the more cost-effective third world countries (and their notorious sweatshops), Bangladesh has become a prime centre for production. The industry now accounts for 80% of the nation’s export revenue. Factories have sprouted across the capital, almost weed-like, and the early mornings are marked by the crowds of factory employees, young and old, filing off to work. Large numbers of the working class women, who constitute 85% of the industry’s workforce, have turned to this work as a form of employment which they consider to be more respectable and profitable than the traditional work in domestic homes.
The wealthier inhabitants of Dhaka are clearly feeling the absence, with many turning to temporary housekeepers and cleaners who visit for a few hours a day, not unlike the cleaning services available in the West. The strain is felt all the more so for an increasingly urbanised and polluted capital, covered in perpetual smog, where maintaining the basic cleanliness of a home is a strenuous task in itself. Coupled with a growth in employment and education of both genders in the city, which reduces time for home maintenance, the scarcity of domestic staff is considered nothing short of a crisis. Perhaps it is these circumstances that have translated into what I found to be some improvement in the treatment of housemaids: they are proving to be indispensable.
However, to claim that the new conditions of these working class women are an improvement would be a gloss over reality. While circumstances have changed, permitting these women more choice over their employment in the city, many factors reflect the gridlocked situation of those in a cycle of poverty with little opportunities for realising their aspirations. My interviews with numerous housemaids proved an eye-opener to a poignant life of struggle and survival.
Amena, a teenage girl with a shy cheeky smile, has been a house servant in the elite Banani district of Bangladesh for several years. Home to diplomats and the city’s wealthiest, the district and house she serves is among the most privileged in the nation. Her female cousins, village migrants like her, also work in Dhaka but in the numerous garment factories that have sprung up in the capital in recent years. Often considered more prestigious work with better pay and fewer hours, it was Amena’s wish to join her cousins. In her current employment, she earns around Tk2,000 (£15.48) a month, while her working day begins at dawn and ends when her employers go to bed. Working in a factory, she could earn Tk3,000 (£23.20) and her hours would be fewer. However, her father forbade this, preferring for her the security of a family home.
His concerns were not unfounded. Factory working conditions in Bangladesh are notorious, with working hours, although fewer, being much more strenuous with the consistent and monotonous toil the employment entails. Furthermore, sexual harassment of female employees is increasingly reported, along with harsh physical and verbal abuse and unsafe conditions. Recent scandals surrounding the sweatshops employed by Adidas have particularly raised concerns regarding the conditions of factory workers in Bangladesh. As Adidas is an official supplier to the London Olympics, the issue has caused particular embarrassment and concern to the Olympic authorities – one more to add to the already existent scandal surrounding sponsorship by the DOW Chemical Company. Additionally, while domestic service ensures the absence of housing and food costs, working in factories exposes employees to the double-digit inflation and skyrocketing living costs of Bangladesh that render factory pay well below living wage standards and insufficient for basic survival. Factory safety conditions are often also notoriously poor.
Although factory work may appear a greener field than domestic work, this is too often an illusion to the gritty reality. Yet so long as inequality, long hours and insufficient pay exists more significantly in the domestic realm, the vision of a better opportunity will not erase. In spite of the longer day and lesser pay, Amena is luckier than most, having benevolent employers who promise to provide employment until she feels ready for marriage, which they will then go on to finance. In a society where female security is still often dependent on a male partner, this will help establish a long-term support for her.
Yet, while her situation may be slightly better than others of her class, the real concern of Amena’s situation is the cycle of poverty in which she finds herself. While the thought of women being at liberty to work may appear to be a symbol of freedom to our westernised thinking, the reality of many women is very different. They sacrifice life to work in their need to survive. With families unable to fund an education and in need of financial support, many like Amena have been forced into work from childhood to sustain themselves and their families from practical starvation. As we commemorate International Women’s Day, it is indeed humbling to think of the many young girls who have been forced into womanhood before their time to work in conditions that cause suffering out of no choice of their own.
*This article is first of a two-part series on urban working-class women in Bangladesh. Part two can be found here.
Image from: http://www.marcgunther.com/is-investing-in-poor-women-good-business/
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