Mukhta Mollah deftly smooths the red fabric and guides it through a whirling sewing machine. She sews side seams on women’s blouses bound for America. Eight hours a day or longer in this hot and sweaty factory. Six days a week.
On this day, like every workday, she will try to reach a target of 1,000 blouses.
Seamstresses sit all around her in rows that stretch across this factory floor crowded with 350 workers. Fluorescent lights buzz and blink overhead. Enormous fans nosily push around the stagnant air, which carries the familiar scent of new clothes.
It takes Mollah less than 30 seconds to complete her part of the blouse. A helper snips the thread ends and piles the garments into a bin to take to the next station. Mollah has long grown accustomed to the mind-numbing repetition, the unrelenting din, the glare, the heat.
She knows that she won’t get rich; she sends nearly half of her $20-a-week wages home to her family. But she’s grateful that the salary, no matter how small, gave her the means to escape her home village and the fate of her schoolgirl friends.
All of them were married before age 16. All have children of their own. All have moved in with their husbands’ families and must get permission from their mothers-in-law to leave the house.
"For them, it’s a cage," said Mollah, 19. "My life is much better than theirs because they have no freedom. When I go back to my village and see my friends, they ask me, ‘Can you take us with you?’"
Bangladesh’s garment industry has earned a reputation for harsh and sometimes lethal working conditions. An eight-story factory collapsed last April, crushing more than 1,100 workers. Six months earlier, a factory fire killed 112 people who could not flee because their bosses had locked the doors to keep them working.
Despite the horrific industrial accidents and accusations of labor abuses — such as forced workweeks of 80 hours — the picture of the underpaid and over-exploited garment worker gets more complicated when compared with other options available to women in this poor, traditional Muslim society. About 5,600 factories in Bangladesh employ more than 4 million people; 90% of the workers are female.