The fashion world's workshop

Last summer, Gina Tricot's Marcus Bergman travelled to Dhaka on behalf of Damernas Värld magazine to interview seamstresses in their home environment. Here is his report.

Morium is 36 years old and she works at a knitting factory with fabrics referred to in this industry as heavy knits. They're the fabrics used for ordinary sweaters made of cotton, but often acrylic or a blend. The machine that she uses is practically identical to what was used back in the mid 1800s, i.e. the classic designs that were invented by Matthew Townsend and William Lamb. A straight bed of hooks creates stitches in the yarn while the operator pulls a sled back and forth. It's the same type of machine that housewives in the Borås area used to set up in their kitchens years ago in order to knit garments and earn some extra income. Women's manufacturing of textiles created a Swedish textiles industry and over time, the Swedish fashion industry.

The women of Borås set up their knitting machines in the kitchen. In Bangladesh, the same machines are set up in factories. Morium tells about her long, arduous journey to and from work each day. Because of the traffic and all the people, it takes her several hours each day to get to work. That being said, work is somewhat of a haven for her. It's cleaner and cooler than it is at home and there is also running water and toilets. It's a protected environment, even though some factories in the area are still rather Dickensian and stuck in the 1800s.

A major problem is "eve teasing," which is a widespread phenomenon involving the sexual harassment of women when they are travelling to and from work. They are followed, assaulted and in the most serious cases, even raped. Cultural reasons are usually given to try to explain this behaviour. Some factories have tried to start up their own bus lines, but the men tend to take over anyway.

Morium's eyesight has deteriorated because of the strain from having to constantly repair broken stitches. In order to find such faults, she has to get her face very close to the knitting, which causes her eyes to quickly become strained. She fears that her eyesight will become so bad that she won't be able to continue working at the factory. She will have to try to find another job, because spending money on an eye examination or glasses is not something she's considering. Not now, when her children have gotten the opportunity to start school.
"No, even if I had the money to get my eyes examined and buy a pair of glasses I wouldn't do it. All of the money I earn goes towards my children's education."

It looks as though someone has shot at the house with a machine gun

Morium's house consists of just one room. There is a shelf, a narrow bunk and a double bed. That's it. The floor is a compact mixture of dirt and cement. The walls and ceiling are made of corrugated iron and reeds. Light pours in from a little window (no glass, but covered by mosquito net) towards the street and from small holes in the walls. It looks as though someone has shot at the house with a machine gun, but the reason is that the material has been recycled – it is corrugated iron that has been used over and over again.

A little boy, who looks to be about four years old, crawls up close to his mother, hungry. She gives him a bag containing some ears of corn. The monsoon season has just started. It's blistering hot and the air is heavy with humidity.

The village is situated at the edge of the river, where everyone bathes and washes their clothes. Although the river sustains them, it is also a constant threat. The river's edge is a steep muddy slope, with houses right at the perimeter, lacking a proper foundation. The vast majority of the country is a river delta and here in one of the world's largest urban slum areas, the poorest people are forced to cope with constant flooding.

Morium's daughter is wearing a yellow dress with beads and pleats in front. She looks like girls typically do when they're going to a party – proud. I'm meeting her at her preschool, which is one of the 150 built and operated by UNICEF with funds provided by Gina Tricot from money it has earned from manufacturing clothing in Bangladesh. During a six year period, SEK 20 million will be invested in this project.

Morium's story is identical to that of millions of other seamstresses. It's a generation of women who are taking the step away from a controlled life at home to the freedom that comes with earning their own money. At the same time, women in Bangladesh are surprisingly invisible, which is particularly peculiar given the fact that the country's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, is a woman. Women here are an anonymous entity and discrimination is highly prevalent.

For example, women are perceived as being contaminated when they are menstruating. Many women can't afford to buy sanitary pads either, so they are forced to gather up the fabric remnants from the factory floor, rags that they have to sneak around with. Because many do not have running water at home, they can't wash the rags either. It is also taboo for the rags to be seen, so the women hide them away in cupboards, for example. Such unsanitary practices are a cause of infections and other diseases. Thus, the issue of women's menstruation has cultural, financial and health aspects that all need to be overcome. One approach that aims to solve some of these problems is to distribute menstrual cups at a reasonable price. Very little water is required to wash them, they can be used for many years and they are appropriate for use in such climates. But that project's outcome is still unclear.

Like Morium, many of Bangladesh's seamstresses provide the main source of income for the family.
"My husband sometimes drives a bicycle taxi or sells firewood," explains Morium and you sense the paradoxical mixture of sadness and pride in her voice, which is typical for women in her position.

Morium earns the equivalent of just SEK 450 per month.

A man who lacks an education. A woman with professional skills and pride, along with utterly self-consuming zeal to help her own children make the leap forward. But that leap occurs with very meagre resources. Morium earns the equivalent of just SEK 450 per month.
Bangladesh's seamstresses belong to the first generation of working women. They are earning money and saving it for the next generation. Swedish fashion companies buy clothing from Bangladesh because it is inexpensive, good quality and delivered quickly. But there is also a downside, i.e. the risk involved with dealing with factories that are corrupt and cannot be trusted. Bringing about more safe, ethical factories requires international cooperation and commitment. But will that happen soon enough to prevent the next factory fire or collapse?

Charitable organizations have been working in Bangladesh more or less since the country gained its independence in 1971. And progress has been made. Bangladesh's economic development, along with the efforts of international charitable organizations, have transformed the Bangladeshi society over a short period of time. In a much-publicized lecture that has been widely circulated online, Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute, has called Bangladesh a "miracle" referring to the decline in the country's birth rates and infant mortality rates. Bangladesh is one of six countries in the world that has halved its infant mortality rate since 1990. That is a remarkable success.

But Bangladesh is also a paradox. It's an economic success story covering the last 30 years. However, almost half of the population still lives below the poverty level, on just 1 USD per day. Bangladesh has a healthy income, but it wouldn't be an understatement to say that the distribution of income is unequal.

At UNICEF's local office in Dhaka, Syeda Shima Islam confirms what is evident from the statistical evidence that is gathered in a neat folder on the highly polished, dark wooden desk that matches the slightly outdated furnishings in the room.
"I suppose you could say that a child is simply worth more than a woman here in Bangladesh. A child can be a boy. It's all about money and livelihood. A woman is a burden and that's why you don't invest as much in a woman as you do in a child," says Syeda Shima Islam. There is also a culture here dictating that you should not complain when you are in pain. One has learned not to be a burden during pregnancy – not to make a fuss. That's what your mother and aunt did, so that's what you do too.

Rashima, who is 36 years old, stands outside the family's home, surrounded by her family, which includes her husband, four children and mother. They reside together in two metal sheds along with a small courtyard. The treetops sway over the courtyard, which is surrounded by corrugated iron on all sides.
"My husband used to drive a bus, but one day he was stopped by the police. It turned out that his driver's license was forged. He had been tricked by the man he bought it from. I work at a factory sewing zippers into trousers," she explains.

In the middle of the courtyard, some stones have been arranged in a circle. That, along with a single pot, serves as the family's kitchen. Each evening, when she returns home from work, Rashima prepares food for the family. The meal always consists of rice and perhaps potatoes or lentils. Sometimes they eat fish that have been caught from the river. Rashima considers herself lucky. Her mother owns the house they live in and it provides them with security. She is visibly proud of her daughter, who attends preschool and her 14-year-old son, Juthi, who has made it through the school system.

I tell about my own 4-year-old son, who has very nimble hands and loves to build things.
"I hope he might one day be a watchmaker," I say.
"That's not a good job," says Rashima, smiling. "My son is going to be the vice president of a bank," she says.  

This article was originally published in Damernas Värld, nr. 12, 2013. This is an abridged version.