Women like Tasnia Begum work in Bangladesh’s cities and sew clothes for Western consumers. Often, the only time they see their children is during the holidays.
Tasnia Begum has 11 days off. For the entire year. And because she wants to use every single minute of her time, she has decided to travel through the night. Normally, she says, she would never do such a thing. Traveling alone as a woman, after all, isn’t altogether safe and could even be dangerous. But to make it as safe as possible, she has reserved seat Nr. 1, right behind the bus driver.
The ticket set her back 600 taka, the equivalent of around 6 euros or $6.68. It’s about what the 25-year-old textile worker makes sewing T-shirts for two days. Her employer is a company that used to supply H&M and now sends its wares to Walmart. She works in a nameless textile factory in an industrial area in Chittagong, a cement-gray city of 2 million residents located on the Bay of Bengal. It is the second-largest textile production site in southern Bangladesh.
It’s 9 p.m. on the evening of June 3, 2019, the last workday before Eid, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan. Millions of Muslims head home on this day and the mood is reminiscent of the day before Christmas in Europe or elsewhere: Trains and buses are full, adults are stressed and children look forward to the sweets they see intheir near future.
Tasnia Begum prepares to head to her home village for the Eid holiday.
Begum booked her bus ticket several weeks in advance. She has strapped on her facemask to protect herself from the leers of men and the pollution of the city and then heaves her two bags onto the rattletrap of a bus in Chittagong’s industrial district.
Mother for a Fortnight
The more than 4,600 registered textile factories in Bangladesh, which account for 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, all close down on this day, with the 4.5 million workers finally able to enjoy several days off. It’s as if someone has pressed pause on the controls of this otherwise hectic city.
Nevertheless, Tasnia Begum — a whip-smart woman with a booming voice and the lithe figure of a 12-year-old — says: “It would be easier to stay in Chittagong. Even before the break starts, I begin thinking of how painful it will be to say goodbye again.”
Textile workers walk to their factories on the last working day before Eid.
Begum isn’t just going on holiday and celebrating one of the most important holidays in Islam. For two weeks a year, she goes home to be a mother. According to a recent survey by the NGO Oxfam Australia, one-third of all textile workers live separated from their children. “I have no choice,” says Tasnia Begum. “There are no jobs for me in the countryside.”
Many parents live in the big city so that their children can have better lives. But what sounds like the classic narrative of generational ascendency raises one question in particular: What is the price for families?
Bangladesh is considered an economic success story among developing nations. Its per capita GDP has increased sevenfold in the last four decades, from $227 to $1,698. In 2000, half of Bangladesh’s now 161 million inhabitants lived beneath the poverty line. Now only about a quarter do. Depending on who one asks, the textile industry in particular has contributed to this economic upswing. Only China exports more clothing than Bangladesh.
Textile workers walk along a busy street in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
‘Made in Bangladesh’
It’s 12.15 a.m. The full bus is rumbling out of the industrial area. Tasnia Begum has 220 kilometers ahead of her, about a seven-hour drive north on the N1 highway. Her route will take her through an agrarian region afflicted by starvation, cyclones and flooding.
On the bus, migrant workers who moved from the countryside to the city in the hope of finding a regular income are now traveling in the opposite direction with luggage as big as freezers, special dishes for celebratory meals, frozen meat and gift bags of clothing — status symbols showing that they have made it. At least compared to their relatives in the village.
Tasnia Begum can see factories pass by her bus window. The facades feature the brand names of European and American companies: Macy’s, Coats, Walmart. Bangladesh exports about half of the clothing it makes to Europe. For a long time, many European buyers only knew “Made in Bangladesh” as something written in tiny print on their clothing’s tags.
Then the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in the capital, Dakha, the biggest accident in the history of the country’s textile industry. Over 1,100 people died in the rubble and more than 2,500 were injured. “Made in Bangladesh” suddenly became a synonym for deadly working conditions.
The media attention and public outcry really did improve the safety conditions in Bangladesh’s factories, say various academics and unionists. Over 220 textile companies, including H&M and Primark, signed a safety agreement with the country’s unions that affected 1,600 factories. Roughly a third of the country’s factories now have fire alarms, sprinklers and fire extinguishers. Some building owners were forced to tear down derelict factories.
“Anyone who doesn’t abide by this doesn’t receive any more contracts,” says a manager of the textile company for which Tasnia Begum works. In order not to endanger Begum’s job, her name as well as the name of her employer have been changed for this story. Begum works in one of the company’s smaller factories. But here, the manager says confidentially, nothing has changed. Tasnia Begum says the same.
A Small Slice of Freedom
Nevertheless, the job is an improvement for her. Six days per week, nine hours per day, she says, she sews in the factory. She earns about 88 euros per month, or 8,400 taka. She sends a quarter of her earnings to her parents every month by phone. “What are my options? I’m not educated,” says Begum.
Of course, she could go back to working as a domestic servant. “I don’t want to be a slave, always available in case someone wants their clothing washed. When I come home from the factory, work is over. Then I am free.”
Her freedom is a small room, 4-by-4 meters, and a shared toilet. The main problem, she says, is that though the minimum wage has doubled, prices have gone up too.
Cost of living has risen by 86 percent between 2013 and 2018, according to a study by the Center for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank. This means that most textile workers can barely afford to survive. As soon as they get a raise, the landlords and store owners raise their prices too.
“My dream life was different,” Tasnia Begum says on the bus. “I wanted to live in a house, have a daughter and a son and take care of my husband.” She got married at 18. Her husband worked in the same factory as she did, one floor below her. But soon, she says, he stopped coming home at night and began flirting with others. He left her. Afterwards, she noticed that her period was late.
“I’m pregnant,” she told him.
“Get an abortion,” he said.
Tasnia Begum sleeps on the journey to her home village.
Reunions and Farewells
7:00 a.m., June 4. The bus stops at an intersection near the city of Brahmanbaria. The rice paddies are partly obscured by the morning fog. “I’ll be there soon,” Tasnia Begum says on the phone to her mother. “Yes, I’m bringing meat. Brush her hair!”
Another half hour with the car, passing women scrubbing clothes in turquoise-green pools. The air is thick with humidity. Close to a thousand people live in Begum’s home village on the Titas River, many of whom are small farmers, day laborers and fishermen.
Arriving in the village feels like coming to a green oasis after being trapped in an industrialized hellhole. No dusty smog sticks in the lungs. You can hear birds chirping instead of the tinnitus-inducing honking of car horns. The village’s residents see it differently, though, and Tasnia Begum feels like it is poor and backwards.
Tasnia Begum’s daughter, Mim, hadn’t seen her mother in a year.
As she walks into the courtyard between her family’s corrugated iron houses, a plastic bag full of beef in one hand, a girl in a red dress steps out of one of the structures and Tasnia Begum wraps her arms around her daughter.
Sadia Begum Mim, born on Eid morning seven years ago, is taller and chubbier than she was last year. The girl slides her little hand into her mother’s, then she just looks at her, saying nothing and smiling. It’s as if she doesn’t know what to say.
Their reunions and farewells have changed over the years, Tasnia Begum says. Four weeks after giving birth to her child, she left her at home for the first time. Her parents took care of the newborn, feeding it powdered milk and palm sugar candies. The next year, her daughter hardly noticed when Tasnia Begum came back. But as a toddler, she shrieked. Meanwhile, her daughter has gotten used to it. They talk on the phone every two days, with Begum interrogating her daughter about what she’s been eating and the games she’s been playing.
Tasnia Begum’s daughter, Mim, chooses a dress for herself for the Eid holiday at a market.
When mom comes home, though, Sadia gets high-heeled shoes at the market and she has the salesman fish the princess dress made of tulle down from the ceiling. On these days, she is allowed to eat chocolate eggs and snuggle her mother while she sleeps.
Some parents don’t bother to come home at all. They stay in Chittagong or in other places where Bangladeshi laborers are frequently found, such as in the Gulf state of Bahrain or in Oman. Begum says she can’t afford to have a guilty conscience. “My parents take care of Sadia. I have enough worries as it is in the city,” she says. For this, she must put up with the fact that her daughter may not always be brought up the way she would prefer.
The Status of Women
In the afternoon, Sadia clings to her mother and cries. She came back late from playing. “You’ll get dark if you play in the sun for so long!” her grandfather shouts at her before pushing her. “Why do you scold her like that?” Begum yells back at her father. He mumbles something and apologizes. “I’m the smartest one in this family,” Tasnia Begum later says, “even my father listens to me.”
Tasnia Begum’s mother, Jamena, and father, Firon Mia, prepare breakfast.
Her family respects her. They say there is no shame in the fact that Tasnia is the only person in the family who lives separated from her husband or that she works so far away. “It would certainly be easier for her to remarry,” her mother says. “But the dowry will be more expensive. She’s already a wife and a mother.” Tasnia Begum waves her off. She’s tired. And now that she’s finally at home, she gets a headache, her back begins to ache and she feels weak.
Tasnia Begum’s parents were cousins when they got married in 1971 in the corrugated iron house where they all live. Two of their six children died. Their first son gambled away the family’s money. And Tasnia got sick. She had a fever, cough and no appetite. The family says they had to borrow money to pay for Tasnia to go to the hospital. Eventually, their debt grew to over 3,000 euros — around 300,000 taka. Tasnia Begum has managed to repay about a third to the lenders, or as she puts it, the “money sharks.”
She has no doctor’s letters to substantiate the story, but it coincides with studies and surveys that have been conducted all over Bangladesh. Many families fall into debt and are unable to repay the sometimes horrendously high interest rates charged by lenders.
Tasnia Begum’s mother, Jamena, cooks in the kitchen the day after Eid.
Compare Tasnia Begum with the older women in the village and you quickly begin to see the real-life reflection of the statistics. The lives of women in Bangladesh have improved over the past 30 years. Today, fewer mothers die in childbirth — and fewer children do too. Women now have an average of two children, down from five in the past. In the textile industry alone, 80 percent of the workforce is female.
But for Tasnia Begum, the work isn’t an act of emancipation, nor is it an investment in her daughter’s future. She sews to pay back the debts of her parents.
Still a Little Girl
When Tasnia Begum awakes on June 5 with a headache and sore limbs, Eid al-Fitr has arrived. The holiday marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Men in starched shirts carrying prayer mats under their arms flock to the village’s open prayer space. In the streets, children buy ice cream and balloons and scream, “Eid Mubarak!” Sadia is allowed to put on her new shoes and pink tulle dress.
Tasnia Begum’s daughter, Mim, plays with friends on Eid.
Bangla music blares in the family’s courtyard, with a couple of cousins having plugged in a speaker. The teenage girls don’t dance, but lower their gazes and giggle with their hands in front of their mouths. The youngest girls, however, including Begum’s daughter Sadia, her friends and her cousins, laugh loudly and jump around. They circle their wrists and hips just like the dancers on YouTube.
They still have a few years left. By the time she’s 12, Sadia will have a full load of household chores to do, says her grandmother. By 18, perhaps sooner, she’ll be married. Maybe her daughter will work as a seamstress in one of the factories, says Tasnia Begum. “Just as long as she doesn’t suffer the same fate as me,” she says. “Then she’d be lost.”