Getting pregnant: A nightmare for our garments women

Nahar works in a garments factory at Mirpur in Dhaka. She has been working in this establishment for the last six months. Earlier, she worked in two other garment factories.Nahar is now seven months pregnant. Her husband is a rickshawpuller. As it is difficult to run a four-member family with the meagre income of her husband, Nahar always gets tension- charged about her job.

To bear the educational expenses of her two children as well as the family expenditure she has to work really hard. She lost her job from a garment factory when she became pregnant earlier. When it became impossible on her part to continue the job because of pregnancy she sought leave from the authority, but they did not pay heed to her request. And she lost her job twice because of the same reason.

Now-a-days working in garment factories has become difficult. Many workers have become jobless in the recent past as the garment industry is going through export crisis. In this situation the problems related to workers, interest have taken a crucial and dangerous turn. In this situation, Nahar is passing her days with great anxiety as because if the authority comes to know that she is pregnant she will certainly lose her job.

Nahar lives at Agargaon BNP Slum. When she was told about the maternity leave introduced by the government, she laughed it away. She slid with frustration, "We do not get holiday even on Fridays, so getting maternity leave is a far cry."

Nurjahan, another poor woman, works in a garment factory in Narayanganj. She has been working here for about two months. Before joining this establishment, she worked in another factory. She was retrenched from that organisation due to pregnancy where she had been working with severe sickness.

Nurjahan knew it well that she would be able to work in the factory as long as she could keep the matter (pregnancy) not known. Naturally, she could not keep it secret for long as one day a supervisor of the organisation noticed Nurjahan's physical change. And when the supervisor asked her to quit the job, she passed the remaining days of' the month seeking his kind consideration in every possible way to be on the payroll. At the end of' the month she returned home with salary.

One month after giving birth to a child, Nurjahan contacted with the garment factory authority and came to know that a new worker has replaced her. While discussing the maternity leave issue, she lamented, "Women have so many problems. I have worked in the factory after doing a lot of household chores, but there are no rules and regulations and the factory management treats us according to their whims". "Women are cheated everywhere, in case of any mistake garment supervisors torture female workers physically and young male workers cut filthy jokes during pregnancy. Moreover, they (supervisors) beat female workers whenever they like. Some rules and regulations are a must to halt these inhuman activities of the garment factories," a dejected Nurjahan went on. A lot of female workers like Nurjahan even do not know that a law for the maternity leave of the working women has been introduced. Working women can get four-month maternity leave with pay. Despite the law in force, the garments authorities run their organisations according to their will flouting the law.

Seema Das Shimu is conducting researches here on women labour. She said, "in our country torturing female workers is easier than torturing male workers. To keep the garment industry sustainable, women workers contribute more than the males. So, oppression, torture and deprivation are a common phenomenon in the industry. In our country, the very term maternity leave is a fairy tale for female garment workers." Are labour laws, rules and regulations about the working atmosphere, and other facilities for the women workers being maintained? she asked. There have been four long-standing demands of the Garment Workers Federation, and the main demand of the four is that the women labourers would have to be given maternity leave with pay. It is needles to say that there is a general tendency among the owners to deprive them (workers) of their due remuneration. Moreover, most of the women workers do not even know that there is a law relating to maternity leave. Becoming pregnant means losing job. They accept any condition to get a job as they go for employment from sub-human conditions. Employers give employment setting rules and regulations according to their whims and caprices which act as a constant threat to workers from the beginning of their employment. Thus, they find no guarantee of their job.

The owners take advantage as a large number of women workers seek employment agreeing to any condition. And for this reason the owners find it easy to retrench any employee at any time. They sack workers to avoid the compulsion and responsibility of giving maternity leave.

When contacted to know about the matter, Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury, a member of BGMEA's (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) Labour Arbitration Committee, said that their president has given strict directives to the owners of the concerned organisations not to deprive any pregnant worker of these facilities according to the rules. He said the rules are strictly followed in the garment factories. However, he said, some women workers quit their job voluntarily.

He emphatically said, production in the factories is not hindered if the garment workers are provided various health facilities and given holidays according to the rules, rather these factors help raise the production. So, question does not arise at all to deny them giving the maternity leave, he asserted. Though the government has introduced provision for maternity leave, it has not specifically mentioned any punishment if anyone violates the rule, so it IS true that there are some irregularities. He said on average seven to eight workers become pregnant annually in a garment factory as they (workers) are well aware of keeping their family size small. So, it is not much difficult for the owners to follow the rule. A large number of workers are the main force behind the sustainability of garment industry of the country and majority of the workforce are women.

So, health, social and economic equilibrium of the women workers are preconditions for quality production. If the provision of maternity leave is strictly applied it would have enormous impact on the overall development of the country. It will also add a new dimension to women empowerment.


Source: The Independent, Dhaka, March 19, 2002

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