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Dreams turn bitter for Bangladeshi garment workers

Tuesday - 6/18/2013, 2:21am  ET

In this photo taken Tuesday, May 21, 2013, Hawa Begum holds a photograph of her two daughters outside the family home in Tekani village in far northwestern Bangladesh. She and her eldest daughter, 18-year-old Moushimi, were working inside the Tazreen garment factory near Dhaka when it caught fire last November. Hawa escaped by jumping out of a window on the fifth floor. Moushimi, trapped behind the factory’s locked gates, was killed along with 111 others. "I pray every day for my daughter and for Allah saving me," Hawa said. (AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)

Associated Press

TEKANI, Bangladesh (AP) -- Moushumi's family now has one of the largest homes in their village -- two bedrooms plus a living area with walls made of sturdy brick. Her father and brother will soon have a small business out front, selling furniture her dad will make. There will be money to pay for her younger sister to get married when it's time.

It is the dream of nearly every Bangladeshi garment worker to earn enough money to build such a life back in their village. Yet for most it remains just that: Wages are so low they can find themselves struggling to eat, let alone save.

And in the case of Moushumi's family, the dream has been bitterly corrupted, made possible not by the opportunity the garment industry provided, but by the tragedy it inflicted.

Moushimi, who like many people in Bangladesh used only one name, was just 18 when she was killed along with 111 others trapped behind the locked gates of the Tazreen garment factory when it burned last November. Her family renovated their home using the 600,000 takas ($7,700) they received in compensation.

A fortune in a poor village like Tekani in Bangladesh's far northwest, it is one the family would gladly return tomorrow to have Moushumi back.

"Previously we didn't have money but we had peace in our mind. We had a complete family," said her mother, Hawa Begum. "The peace is no longer there."

Since the fire and April's collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, which killed 1,129 people, Bangladesh's garment industry has been under increased pressure from workers and activists to raise wages and improve working conditions.

The government agreed last month to set up a committee to look into raising the minimum wage of $38 a month. Rather than talking of luxuries like buying land, those advocating for higher salaries speak of getting enough calories. They say the current rate isn't close to what workers need to pay their bills and eat properly.

"It's not enough for their half a month's costs even," said Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker and the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity in Dhaka. Most in the industry are "living just hand-to-mouth," she said.

Rubel, 20, left the Tekani area more than two years ago, drawn by the prospect of steady garment work and the ability to save. Even after a raise, he couldn't get by on his salary. Adding to his woes, he was often paid late and was sometimes cheated out of overtime. He found himself buying food on credit.

"I couldn't keep my word with the shopkeepers and they would get angry with me," he said. "It would make me sad to not be able to keep my word."

He gave up after six months and returned home.

"When I went there I thought of saving money, coming back, building a home and taking care of my family," he said. "But it didn't happen."

Three years ago, 22-year-old Mosammat Angura Begum and her husband left Tekani for garment work in a Dhaka suburb more than 300 kilometers away.

Their combined salary of about 10,000 takas ($128) goes quickly, for rent, utilities, food and household goods. On a good month they can save 2,500 takas ($32), sending some back to Tekani to help care for their daughter and saving the rest. Still, they don't know how long they can endure.

"Age is an issue. Now I get through the day by skipping one meal, no problem. But what will happen when I get old? Will I be able to do that?" Angura asked.

Most garment workers expect too much when they enter the industry, said Nur Alom, the elected local chairman for Tekani and the surrounding villages. He said it's rare for a worker to save enough to buy land or build a house. Realistically, they can purchase some cattle for their family.

Villagers say saving is difficult if only one or two people from the family go to work in the factories, but if four or five family members do it, it is possible.

While success stories are rare, they do exist. Rabiul Islam was recently back in Tekani overseeing the workers replacing his family's mud house with a brick one.

He started in the industry 14 years ago, making 700 takas ($9) a month. He kept getting promotions and changing jobs until he reached as high up the chain as a common worker can, making 34,000 takas ($435) a month as a factory production manager.

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