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Standing Up and Standing Out

Hana Shams Ahmed

Begum Rokeya's 'Sultana's Dream' was an early work of fantasy fiction. But if any group of women have come close to achieving that state, it is the 18 lakh garment workers in the 4,500 factories all over the country. In a society where a woman's first responsibility is always seen as the caretaker of the house and mother to her children, where her career is secondary to her husband's, it is these garment workers who have at many homes become the sole providers for their families. In many cases, it is the husbands who do the family cooking because of the late work hours wives have at the factories.

Najma Akhter has been fighting for garment workers' rights for years.

But their work is not without its share of troubles. It is an everyday struggle they have to face, and they do so with determination from offensive behaviour at the workplace, to long and tiring repetitive work, lack of recreational facilities, and the constant fight for fair pay and good working conditions. Circumstances like these can make or break a person. One woman who has been fighting these barriers for years is 33-year-old Najma Akhter. Starting out as a shy 11-year-old who had to leave school in 5th grade and join a factory as a helper, she has become one the most vocal garment worker leaders of the time.

For Najma who is now the President of the garment workers' trade union, the Shommilito Garments Sromik Federation, life and work was an uphill struggle all the way. When Najma was 11, she had to start working in a factory. Her father had a small business of his own, but he never earned enough to make ends meet. With two other siblings in the house, Najma's daily 200-taka salary was a better deal for the family than sending her to school. Sometimes this little girl had to work until midnight to meet buyers' deadlines. If adversity is what makes a person strong, there was plenty of that around Najma as she worked her way from a helper to a machine operator. By the age of 16, she already began to realise that being poor and female gave her little bargaining power against exploitative work practices.

But Najma was having none of that. She argued with her superiors about proper working hours and getting paid on time. “They would not give our salaries on time and it was very difficult for us to pay our rent and buy food for the home,” says Najma, recalling her protest days. “We had to face a lot of harassment from the family, the society as well as the state. If we protested too much we would lose our jobs and then we would have problems at home. When we failed to bring money home, we were accused from all sides -- everyone would tell us that we shouldn't get involved with such things and just concentrate on our work.”

While trade unions already existed at that time, Najma says that union leaders were politically motivated and more concerned about their own benefits than those of the workers. “Once we were protesting vehemently against a big company during Ershad's time, but the owners could not be bothered with our demands. It turned out that we would be living in houses owned by people who were friends with the owners, which created trouble for us from all sides. We had great unity amongst the workers but the external problems really pulled us down. At one end we had to deal with poverty in the family, then there were the unions who tried to use us and the locals tried to harass us.”

One of the big problems for women working in the garment industry is the constant harassment faced from outsiders while commuting. From making comments about their bodies to stalking, groups of men make their work travel a daily ordeal. “People harassed us all the time and made awful remarks at us when we walked down the road,” says Najma, “and even when we did protests and marches people would say bad things about us: that we were not good people and that our character was bad.”

There was no end to their troubles. As she became a public figure, factory owners refused to employ Najma, thinking she was a troublemaker. “My photos came out in the newspapers and I was branded and I wouldn't get a job anywhere,” says Najma, “once I got a job at a factory and I was kicked out of there on the very same day after they found out that I was involved with protests in some other factory. We were harassed by the police several times. But things have changed a lot since the 1990s. There's a huge difference between now and then.”

The role played by Najma and her associates created that change. After Najma left factory work and started getting involved with organising workers, she had to face another big challenge. “I had to go to the houses of all the workers and do various kinds of field work and because we had to go around at night, I was branded a sex worker.”

Najma knew her lack of education was another barrier and she overcame it with her will power and aspiration. She taught herself how to operate a computer and learned to read English. Her work now involves raising awareness among the garment workers about their rights and responsibilities. “On one hand they need to be aware of their rights and on the other hand they need to do their work properly,” says Najma, “they also need to know how to get their maternity leaves and their days off and how to make sure they get their salary on time.”

Najma has to have regular bargains with the owners, the government and the international buyers and she does so with courage and determination. She has attended three conferences in the United Stated and one in Europe regarding workers' rights. Najma's organisation provides legal help to garment workers who have unjustly lost their jobs and also arranges recreational facilities for them. “Our biggest aim is to make sure that they have a safe working environment for themselves. It's a very positive side that there's such a big working arena for women but a lot of their rights have not been ensured here. There are a lot of other problems as well. People in the management sometimes try to have a physical relationship with the workers and sometimes they abuse them physically and verbally.”

Najma has a commitment to the cause of these workers. “Because I am a sufferer I know first-hand the kind of problems they face, that's why I always try to empower them and I want that more people take such leadership roles from the grassroots level so that they can solve their own problems,” she says, “We have had to overcome a lot of barriers to get where we are today. Now I can talk to the government, to the owners, I can talk to the buyers about the workers' problems, and can make national and international negotiations. Everyone knows me and I can talk about how this industry can be more efficient, and I feel very proud of that. But I feel more people need to come out and take such roles.”

Najma believes that the garment industry is actually a progressive place for women in Bangladesh. “These women are working and sometimes their husbands cook for them,” she says, “you won't even find this trend in most educated families. I don't have to tell my husband where I'm going or when I'm coming home. When I first got married he didn't like the kind of work that I did, but I suffered a lot to come to this position and I couldn't go back from there.”

Garment workers demonstrating for their rights

“I advise people by saying that if a man can walk fast so can I. If he can travel by bus standing so can I,” continues Najma. “Even when I have an argument with a man, I have to hear things like, this woman has a bad character, she comes from a bad family and things like that. Even things like who will marry a woman like this? When you have to work with owners you have to have the logic, intelligence and bargaining ability to argue with them, women do have all that, but they just need a platform to pull themselves up.”

Najma believes that women need to claim their place in leadership; no one can make that place for her. “We should also have the mentality to help others get to the position that we are in. Women in garment industries are actually a lot better off than other sectors. They have a working environment, they are economically empowered, they travel on their own, they go home on their own.”

In our country, family, society and the state often create barriers for women to move forward. Although great emphasis is put on women's education from family as well as state, that support is given under unspoken conditions -- that the first priority for a woman is to get married and raise a family. There is also a limit to how successful a woman can be. Najma Akhter has overcome patriarchal barriers. She faced big problems and through it discovered how strong she was. When a man shoved her in a crowded area she shoved him back. She took her life as a challenge and won. Overcoming big barriers make us grow, and Najma has come a long way in her journey so far.

Photos: Syed Zakir Hossain

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