Ruma Akther works as a sewing machine operator in a factory just outside the capital Dhaka. A majority of the clothes the factory has in its production line are Swedish textile brands. Ruma is proud of her work, which provides her and her family with a good income.
Photo: Martin Roeck Hansen/I am production
Made in Bangladesh
If you look at the tag in your shirt, the probability that it is made in Bangladesh is high. Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporter in the world, making the textile industry very important for the country and its four million textile workers.
Textiles are Bangladesh’s largest export commodity and an important source of revenue both for the country and for all the people working within the industry. The majority of the textile workers, nearly 80 per cent, are women. One of them is Ruma Akther. She works as a sewing machine operator in a factory just outside the capital Dhaka. Ruma has worked in the factory for ten years and a majority of the clothes the factory has in its production line are Swedish textile brands. Ruma is proud of her work, which provides her and her family with a steady income.
– I grew up in northern Bangladesh, but my parents died when I was very young, so I do not have any memories of them, Ruma says. Today I enjoy my work and I have had the opportunity to advance. The money I earn gives me the opportunity to contribute to a better life for my family and to give my children a better childhood than I had.
In Ruma’s department at the factory there are fans which whisk the hot and humid air around. The sewing department is located several floors up and has windows facing the courtyard and there are hundreds of seamstresses, both men and women, working in long, straight rows, one for each production line. The pace and sound of clattering sewing machines is high. Everyone on the floor is wearing surgical masks despite the heat, not to inhale the dust.
The cheap production chains are one of the reasons behind Bangladesh’s competitive advantage compared to other textile producing countries. The dark sides however are poor wages and unsafe working conditions. The factory where Ruma is working is one of the largest in the region, with 6,500 employees. Management is working on reducing the impact on the environment and increase the standard of life for their employees. For example, the factory is paying the schooling fee for Ruma’s two children and through the factory the family has access to subsidised medical care. The situation means that the workers are highly dependent on their employer - if something would make them lose their jobs, then they will lose everything.
– My first job was as an assistant in the department where the clothes are sewn. After that I was promoted and today I work as a sewing machine operator. I am also a workplace representative in a committee that promotes women's rights and prevents sexual harassment in the workplace, Ruma explains.
The minimum wage in Bangladesh is 68 USD, about 550 SEK. Ruma, who has worked a long time at the factory, earns more than 1 000 SEK per month. The working week is six days, eight hours a day. In Bangladesh, which is a Muslim country, Fridays are their day off. But the factories cannot afford to stand still, so the production of fabrics, washing and dyeing takes place all day round, hence many of the employees work in shift. The rooms where textiles are dyed, washed and dried are large, noisy and dark. It is hot and humid.
With hope for a better future
Ruma’s husband also work in the factory just as Ruma, but as a mechanic. They live with their two daughters, who are twelve and seven years old, in an apartment close by the factory. The apartment consists of a single room where a bed occupies a large part of the living area. The family share one bed and all their belongings are stored on shelves high up on the walls. Outside the small apartment there is a common space where the tenants together have access to a stove. There are also shared toilets and showers outside the apartments.
– My husband and I both have jobs, our children go to school and will therefore have completely different opportunities than we had. We can even save some money to move and buy land in the countryside, where I grew up. Our dream is a house with farmland that we can cultivate.
Swedish Textile Water Institute - STWI
The factory in which Ruma is working is a part of the project Swedish Textile Water Initiative, STWI. The project is a collaboration between the Stockholm International Water Institute, Sida and thirty textile companies that promotes more sustainable production in the textile industry. The mission is to reduce the textile and leather industry's consumption of water, energy and chemicals. The initiative is currently available in five countries; India, China, Bangladesh, Turkey and Ethiopia and includes about 120 factories. Sida accounts for half of the funding, and the project has already mobilized private capital equivalent to 125 per cent of the support that it received from Sida. In total the water consumption has decreased by eight per cent in the factories, which corresponds to the daily need of water for nearly 50 million people. Energy consumption has decreased by eleven per cent and the use of chemicals by six per cent during the year of 2015.