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Image: Internet

Image: Internet

Mahmudul Sumon

I have just watched a documentary film titled Udita, meaning arise, a film on the plight of female garments workers of Bangladesh. A film by the acclaimed UK based film makers the Rainbow Collective, the documentary centers on few female workers working in an industrial sector of the country that has only seen boost in the last two decades from a meager beginning in the 1980s. However, the events of Tazreen fire and later Rana Plaza collapse have brought the issue of “health and safety” to the fore of many forums concerned with this sector. Perhaps due to this recent focus, there has been work on many fronts and the film also seems to have stemmed from this renewed concern.

The film centers on the daily lives of some workers in Bangladesh. It shows the life of one female worker who is single; it depicts the life of a single mother; a household consisting of a typical nuclear family is also found in the story, and finally another household with a woman who lost two of her daughters and a son in law in the Rana Plaza collapse is also found in the small selection of people shown in the film. With an approach to capture the daily life of garment workers in Bangladesh, the camera in this film has followed the lives of these few workers from dawn to dusk. It highlighted the stringent work ethic with which the workers have to put up in their day to day lives: from early morning to late evening hours. Only when there is less work, says one protagonist of the film, workers get to take a leave at 5 pm in the evening. Otherwise returning home could be as late as 9 -10 pm at night.

The camera in this film closely followed the life of the workers; it showed what frequently these workers eat at home; very little food with which they have to live through their lives. This includes mostly rice and vegetable and some form of lentils. In one occasion, a protagonist told that meat is rarely cooked (once in 3/ 4 months). Long hours at work mean the workers are not able to spend a lot of time with their children. In two cases in the film, it showed that the children were left with their grandmother. The protagonists when asked the usual question of why they have come to work told that lack of work in their respective homelands (desh) have brought them to this profession. Generally, they felt that such opportunities have given them means of survival unavailable at home. From this small selection of people, it was apparent that those households where both husband and wife worked in the factory were economically better off in their day to day business of running the household. In some cases, the protagonist’s life course appeared to depend on other households: for example children lived with the grandmas. For example the household in the film depicting the typical nuclear family left their child with his grandmother. In another case it was striking to know that the children called their grandma as mother as they hardly get to see their mothers.

In the case of one protagonist who lost her daughters in the Rana Plaza collapse, the documentary vividly shows the kinds of uncertainties with which a women finds herself with school going grandsons suddenly orphaned and her difficulties in coping with the situation with no income. The building collapse has changed the life course of the family and the old woman (who was beginning to get the fruits of her daughter’s hard work at the factory) trying hard to overcome her grief knows no way as to how to continue life with small kids. In all cases the workers, although having a hardship, were kin to educate their children. They didn’t want their children to take up the hardship.
The documentary generally did well in depicting the life course of the workers. However, it hasn’t deeply explored the lives of the workers on issues such as under what circumstances they have come to cities to work in the industry; it has only depicted the precarious condition under which their life course unfolds after their migration in the city; the uncertainties it entails. The film also shows how the workers perceive being in the society. They would have never ventured this work, had they received some education, they tell to the camera. They are all acutely aware of the hardness of this work. No time for leisure; no respect in the work place; cheating with attendance register seems a common practice from the narrative of the protagonists. Yet, they have to work as they have no other option.

The documentary briefly mentions two events that have changed the life course of many workers in the sector. One activist says that had there been some punitive action for Tazreen fire, perhaps Rana Plaza collapse wouldn’t have taken place, somewhat implying that people would have been more aware of the safety of the workers. Although the documentary structures around the life course of few people who happened to be workers in this sector, it does not bring up the broader issues of restructuring of the production system within which the industry has flourished in Bangladesh in the recent past. It doesn’t bring up broader questions of neoliberal economy within which garments industry in Bangladesh functions. Such bracketing off strategies gives an impression that the industry is an opportunity crested by the industry leaders of the country; it falls prey to the familiar trope that the industry leaders try to claim: haven’t we heard several times from the big guns of the industry, often BGMEA personnel that they have provided employment opportunity for 40 lac people? If we look at the broader scheme of things, then perhaps one may shed off such self-congratulatory statements and remain more humble!

I think the film also erred on this side. As such, it continued with the familiar story: as if economic hardship has brought them to city and they had been helped by the industry. If we bring the broader story of economic restructuring at the heart of the capitalist countries, then this narrative may not remain as simplistic!

The documentary ends with a call for protest. It shows that workers are trying to unionize. In the case of one protagonist who works closely with a union, it shows how she spends some time of her day in union activity. A small office is seen. Workers are seen sipping tea and chanting slogans “workers of the world, drink tea”! The activist protagonist tells the audience how she is trying to organize, how she is trying make people aware of their rights, how they should raise their voice etc. It is from this segment of the film I see a pattern; from here on the compensation regimes overtakes, something we’ve been arguing for a while (For more on this: see our piece titled “Death by negligence and its normalization” available [Online] http://www.thedailystar.net/death-by-negligence-and-its-normalisation-51729. Everyone in the film talks about compensation; the union leader urges people to join forces; promises that he will ensure compensation. Although when dealing with the main protagonists at the beginning of the film (who are not all necessarily engaged with the protests), people spoke about owners and their managers and their various techniques of cheating and deprivation (common cheating includes reducing the number of attendance due to “late coming”; in one occasion when a protagonist asked for first aid treatment [the availability of the treatment in the industry premise is a requirement of the labour law of Bangladesh], managers told that these facilities are not available and she can leave the job if she finds this no good!).

However, at the end of the film, it appears that compensation is all we need! The protests are organized around this issue. Yes, the corporate accomplice is depicted from visuals showing the labels of the brand. But what about the local accomplice of this “supply chain”? Where is the state in the picture? What about the different institutions of state whose negligence and malpractices are also part and parcel of criminal negligence in the garments sector of Bangladesh? In a related query one is also inclined to ask: what happened to the worker’s unions of Bangladesh which have worked for years for the rights of the workers? Why are these bracketed off? None of these questions are answered in the documentary. It provides a romantic picture of resistance, copy book indeed, where workers are chanting duniarmajdurak how (poorly dubbed as “friends” of the world, unite!).

In this “small” dubbing error, workers are dropped altogether in the end!

Mahmudul Sumon teaches Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University and a member of Activist Anthropologist.

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