On February 9, Fatema Akhter Tanha, a 19-year old apparel worker fell sick at work and was pronounced dead after she was taken to the hospital near her factory. Her death raises certain questions about the everyday working conditions and lives of apparel workers in Bangladesh. On the International Women’s Day, Nahid Riyasad writes, a true tribute to her life would be to ensure living wage for workers so they don’t suffer from malnutrition, to ensure a working environment in which workers will ask for sick-leave without the fear of losing their job
A FEW DAYS after her marriage, on February 1, Fatema Akhter Tanha, a 19-year-old woman, joined a readymade garment factory at Dhaka’s outskirt Ashulia. She became part of a sector that is responsible for adding nearly USD 33 billion to the economy of Bangladesh. Like Fatema, currently there are more than 2 million female workers, alongside one and a half million male workers, are turning the wheels of the RMG sector that accounts for nearly 14 per cent of the national GDP.
Her start to a career, unfortunately, was force-stopped a mere week later when on February 9, 2020 she died after feeling ill at work in Natural Denim Limited. After arriving at work on that day, she told her husband, Shahidul Islam Apon that she was not particularly feeling well but could not ask for a leave as she just joined there only a week ago. She feared that asking for leave would cost her the job she needed so dearly.
She fainted soon after that phone call and was rushed to a nearby hospital where duty doctor pronounced her dead. Stroke was the cause of her death, according to the death certificate however her friends and family said, she was suffering from severe Anaemia. Although it is not possible to definitively say anything about the cause of her death, but severe anaemia could lead to death as the lack enough healthy blood cells could result in low oxygen saturation leading to stroke and other health problems. These are all speculation of the friends and family as they struggle to comprehend how a young woman could die of stroke. Her untimely death brings forth a set of questions that this article will try to find answers to.
Tanha was intimidated to ask for a leave as a new employee. That should not have been the case. New or old, labour organisers said, sick leave is their legal entitlement. However, in our apparel industry, ‘approving leave’ is not a question of workers right but it happens at the mercy of the factory management. Maintaining an intermediating culture, as many workers have said for years, they continue the exploitation. Tanha’s hesitation to ask for help is reflective of this fearful atmosphere.
New Age Youth contacted Aminul Islam Shama, organising secretary of Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Solidarity to understand the work environment at apparel factories. ‘In many cases, workers are reluctant to ask for leave because that would displease the authorities. Overall, there is a strict hierarchy in the factories to ensure workers are disciplined and don’t take many day-offs’.
While mentioning Tanha’s case, Shama sheds light on his elder sister Rani Khatun’s case who works for a RMG factory at the Adamjee EPZ and was also suffering from Anaemia. ‘My sister had the same condition as Tanha’s and became seriously ill a few months ago. Fortunately, her factory authorities were sympathetic towards their workers and would allow sick-leave up to two weeks. That leave allowed us to ensure proper medical attention that my sister needed and now she is back to work.’
Echoing Shama, Shahidul Islam Apon told New Age Youth that she was not feeling particularly well on that morning. ‘I suggested her to take leave for that day but she could not gather her courage to ask for a leave to her in-charge because that was only her second week at that job and she did not want to lose that job. Only a few days ago, she was talking about taking the SSC examination as she could not continue her studies after grade 10 due to financial hardship.’
Even though Tanha is not a case of serious factory-negligence, however, there were deaths of young garment workers due to negligence of the authorities. On May 20, 2018, New Age Youth did a story on Rashedul Islam Hasib, a 25-year-old garment worker of HR Textile Mills Limited, Savar. He was feeling unwell but nonetheless appeared at work on May 5, 2018. He was turned down twice for a leave and sent to the medical facility of the factory where he was given painkillers. He fainted at his desk after lunch and died on the stairs of the factory on his way to the hospital.
On October 13, 2016, Taslima Akhter, a sewing operator of Windy Apparels arrived at work. The 23-year-old had not been feeling well for the last two weeks. She was denied a request to go home early and sent to work. After few hours, she fainted on her machine and sent to the factory medical facility and she was sent back to work once again. During the launch, she fainted again but could not be revived this time. Her death certificate noted that she died of cardiac failure following ‘severe respiratory distresses.’
Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Unity research shows that respiratory related diseases make up to 41 per cent of the illnesses among apparel workers. Some other major diseases among them are ulcer, jaundice, urinary infection and typhoid.
Humayun Kabir, a man in his late 20s, was a quality inspector at Dress World Limited in Savar. His co-workers made the same complaint that his repeated request for sick leave was denied by the factory authority. He died on the way to hospital after he fell ill while working on July 26, 2010.
On December 30, 2007, Salma, a garment worker of SQ Sweaters Limited was feeling sick during her night shift. Like Hasib, Taslima and Humayun, her request for sick leave was also denied. She tried to take rest lying underneath her machine but on the next morning, she died at her home.
All these deaths took place despite the fact that workers are legally entitled to sick leave. The Chapter ix, Clause 116 of National Labour Law clearly suggests that, ‘All workers employed in a factory shall be entitled to get 14 (fourteen) days sick leave with full average wages. Provided, such a leave shall not be granted unless a registered physician employed by the employer or any registered physician has certified his or her illness.’
With deep frustration and anger, Shah Alam, a long-term labour organiser from Savar told New Age Youth, ‘We are nothing but machines to them. Supervisors had routinely denied requests for sick leave for anyone who wasn’t seriously ill. One described to me about a co-worker being warned that she would be fired if she didn’t return from sick leave after a day. Even if I am on my death bed, they will ask me to finish making two more pieces before I die.’
This exploitative working condition has its toll on apparel worker. A research of Bangladesh Workers Solidarity, that was presented on August 10, 2018 show how much an apparel worker can manage their expenses with Tk 5300 minimum wage.
The research was conducted on 200 RMG workers, 77 per cent of the respondents were women, which portrayed a grim picture of their livelihood against a USD 30 billion industry. It shows that an RMG worker, on average, spends Tk 1100 for food every month. According to the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science of the University of Dhaka, a person needs 2800 calories every day to go through an eight-hour work shift.
It would take Tk 3270 per month to ensure necessary nutrition to someone working 8-hour shifts, which is three times more than their monthly allocation. Furthermore, the research showed that many workers have to take as much as 60-hours of overtime work per month to meet their month’s end. On average, many of the workers have to work 252 hours per month (192 regular hours and 60 hours overtime) meaning two and a half hour of overtime every day.
These numbers are indicating a violations of Bangladesh Labour Law 2006 which limits a worker’s monthly work-hours, including over-time to 224 hours. On the one hand, workers are finding it hard to eat enough food to supply their body with required nutrition and on the other hand, they are excessively overworked. An impossibly low wage, exhaustive work schedule, low calorie in-take could lead to such deaths that are categorised as ‘natural’ death and required nutrition intake can be a major reason behind such ‘natural’ deaths of young garment workers. A natural death risks her/his family’s chance at the compensation.
The then state minister for labour and employment Mujibul Haque Chunnu, at a programme in Dhaka on December 16, 2016 said that in case of unnatural death of a garment worker at the workplace will entitle his/her family members to Tk 5 lakhs. According to Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, the amount of compensation is Tk 1 lakh in case of death and Tk 1.25 lakh in case of permanent disablement.
The ploy of word in the minister’s comment should be observed closely as he mentioned ‘unnatural’ death because overworking and underpaying young workers and pushing them on the verge of malnutrition and severe physical vulnerability and subsequent death is considered as ‘natural’— at least in medical terms.
Tanha’s untimely death has given us chances to ask these questions once again and the answers are nothing new. In the name of disciplining the labour force, an exploitative working condition in which a day’s leave is costlier than a worker’s death. They have to work long hours which left them physically stressed and vulnerable. Their wage is so poor that they have to go through malnutrition. Last but not the least, if someone dies of these adverse and harsh conditions, the compensation is so little that it is nothing but a mockery to their death.
Tanha is not the first and Tanha will not be the last in this culture of squishing the maximum out of the workers and giving them the bare minimum. A true tribute to her life would be to ensure living wage for workers so they don’t suffer from malnutrition. A true tribute to Tanha’s life would be to ensure a working environment in which workers will ask for sick-leave without the fear of losing their job.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team
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