The garment industry is one of the?largest industrial sectors in Bangladesh. It accounts for a good portion of the country?s exports and employs more than three million workers. Most of them are women.
?Workers toil from dawn to dusk on minimum wage,? said?Taslima Akhter, a Bangladeshi photographer who has spent more than four years capturing the workers? movement for ?The Life and Struggle of Garment Workers.?
Ms. Akhter, 37, was compelled to bring to light some of the industry?s darker aspects, like dangerous working conditions and low salaries. As an activist, a photographer and a resident of Bangladesh, she sees the ongoing project as both a personal agenda and a civic duty.
Ms. Akhter said she believed that the struggle of garment workers ? particularly women ? was one of the country?s most pressing issues. A transition to democracy in Bangladesh would raise questions about women?s rights, she said, expressing hope that her project could help speed the country toward that goal? ? and inspire the workers to make their own voices be heard.
In 2006, garment workers in Bangladesh made less than $25 per month, Ms. Akhter said. Following a tremendous protest in 2010, their wages increased to just under $45 monthly ? still not a living wage.
That strike ? and the number of women who participated ? drove Ms. Akhter to continue her work on the project, most of which she photographed in and around her hometown, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. (Outside Dhaka, she shot in Gazipur, to the north, and Narayanganj, to the east.) Ms. Akhter studied photojournalism at the?Pathshala South Asian Media Academy in Dhaka in 2007. She completed a master?s degree in philosophy from theUniversity of Dhaka. She just completed a six-week course on photography and human rights at New York University?s?Tisch School of the Arts as part of a?Magnum Foundation scholarship she was awarded in 2010.
A portrait they say, is not so much a likeness of the person being photographed, but a depiction of one?s character. More grand definitions talk of them being a ?window to the soul?. I looked at my portrait of this ?enemy of the country? as a labour minister had declared, and wondered whether I had indeed found a window to her soul. She had just been arrested in Gazipur, and I had no further information.
With numerous cases strategically lodged all over the country on trumped up charges, her arrest was always on the cards. In today?s countrywide strike for workers? pay, facing violent repression, their resistance was a defiant stand for the rights of the oppressed. She and the workers she represented, all knew the risks. She had to lead from the front, come what may.
One is generally kind to bread winners. They are the ones who sit at the head of the table, get the choice piece of meat, make after dinner speeches. Their comfort and their happiness is of prime importance to those who survive on that bread. Bangladesh earns 12 billion dollars from garment exports and gets three quarters of its export earnings from this single sector. One would imagine that the bread winners of Bangladesh, the two million garment workers, mostly women who had migrated from villages in search of work, would be offered a bit more than the Taka 1650 (less than USD 24) per month minimum wage.
But then these enemies of the country, didn?t stop at demanding more than a dollar a day for their work. They wanted weekends off, to be paid overtime, to be paid on time and enjoy statutory holidays. They even objected to their systematized sexual harassment.
So what if the garment sector was the most profitable, and the garment workers amongst the most poorly paid. Some workers getting paid as little as $ 12 a month maybe a bit on the low side, and maternity leave should really be given, but have some sympathy for the owners. Should the BGMEA bigwig owner who bought his wife the expensive Mercedes have to sell his car? It?s not only workers who find Bangladesh a difficult country to live in. The Merc, as I?ve been told, had been expensive to start with. With 850% tax being applied on luxury goods, the poor man had to pay nearly a million dollars for his wife?s set of wheels. OK, so it could have paid for a few $24/month salaries, but then his wife had other costs. They did have standards to maintain.
And these strikes were so annoying. Even in May, the death of the 25?year old worker Rana, led to unrest. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)?had to give up its normal task of extrajudicial killings to deal with?workers demanding decent wages.
I just heard that the campaign worked. Mishu?s been released. I should get on with my portraits. Perhaps I should photograph the garment owners to complement the picture of Mishu. Given my earlier failure with portraits, I would need to find the right metaphors for the window to their soul. A chunk of granite, glued to cold steel, wrapped in dollars could perhaps do the trick.
related links: Unheard Voices