The industrial zone of Ashulia, just outside of Bangladesh’s sprawling capital, Dhaka, grabbed headlines in mid-June when hundreds of garment workers demanding higher minimum wages shut down over 300 factories. It was the most violent protests the region had experienced since 2010; the death of a prominent labor activist, Aminul Islam, three months prior in April fueled the unrest that unfolded.
In fact, despite its obscurity internationally, Ashulia is one of the major manufacturing hubs for ready-made garments for export to Western stores like Wal-Mart, Tesco, and H&M. Some 4,500 factories – from hulking concrete structures to one-story buildings that resemble small storefront shops – employ nearly a half a million people. I visited Ashulia in August, just a month after the unrest, to meet with teachers and students from the School of Hope, one of the schools that offers subsidized education (with funds from Wal-Mart) for the area’s garment worker children.
The drive from Dhaka to Ashulia can be deceptive: it’s only about 18 miles, but can take hours during morning or afternoon rush hour when workers are commuting to their shifts. The main highway serves as a central artery that feeds employees to the factories, most of which are set back from the main road. The highway turns into a ribbon of humanity – men and women weave through traffic in clumps, spilling out of buses and rickshaws, eventually trailing down paths to different building entrances.
Over much of the last decade, Bangladesh’s economy has maintained a high, 6 percent growth rate. Although the country remains one of the poorest (it ranks 146th out of 187 countries in the UNDP’s latest Human Development Report), experts are generally optimistic about its growth trajectory – recently, the director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) said that Bangladesh was “well on track” to achieve its development goals to become a middle-income country by 2021. The garment industry, which makes up 80 percent of the country’s export earnings and employs over 3.6 million people, has played an enormous role in the country’s economic progress. Due to a number of factors but mostly lower working wages, Bangladesh has beaten some of its neighbors like India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia to become one of the world’s largest clothing exporters – second only to China. The industry also provides job opportunities to the country’s rural residents, who have typically relied on agriculture (and still do) for their livelihoods, who flock to manufacturing areas like Ashulia. Their income, albeit low, is critical for the livelihood of their families, but the sacrifices that they make are significant.
One example is that of Sahjahan and his family. Sahjahan migrated with his wife, Kanchan, and their two children from northwest Jamalpur to Ashulia seven years ago so that she could find work at a clothing factory. Like most garment workers here, they live in a one-room basti (slum), and share a communal toilet and cooking area. Sahjahan works as a day laborer, collecting and selling rubbish scraps. This type of working arrangement is not uncommon in garment worker communities: 80 percent of the industry’s workforce is made up of women who, like Kanchan, are drawn to factory work to earn an income that would otherwise be hard to come by. Electricity is intermittent at best; the dark, windowless rooms are lit by single tungsten bulbs dangling from the ceiling.
Sahjahan’s 7-year-old daughter, Shanta, attends the School of Hope nearby. While the factory jobs provide much-needed income to families, many of whom are living on $40-50 a month or less, the urge to pull young girls, and boys, out of school to work at the factories is tempting. Despite hardships, Sahjahan, clutching his daughter’s small hand, told me, “I’m never taking my daughter out of school – if she wants to become a doctor, she’s going to have to study hard and stay in school.” In some cases, though, the school must do some hard negotiations with the parents to convince them to keep their children enrolled.
Shakil, a bright-eyed, “star” student at School of Hope, lives nearby with his parents who migrated from Natore in northern Bangladesh. His mother now works in a clothing factory and his father sells jackfruit. His 12-year-old sister does not go to school, and just recently, his father was nearly forced to also pull Shakil, who wants to become a doctor, out of school to work in the factories. Teachers from School of Hope convinced his father to let him stay for now.
In the mid-day heat, we make our way through the tight footpaths that weave through the residences and come to a row of shops and produce stands. The streets are sleepy and quiet; men rest draped over rickshaws, and older women sit idly under shelter waiting to sell their products. The factories drive the pulse of the community here – at this hour, most residents are working at factories nearby. When their shift ends, they will fight the congestion to make their way back home. They are helping to put Bangladesh on the map – making it more competitive regionally and globally. But, as other countries have learned, the ascent to middle class doesn’t come without sacrifice.
Alma Freeman is The Asia Foundation’s global communications manager and editor of its In Asia blog, where this piece first appeared. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.