S Alam

Suraya got married when she was twelve. Her husband, a first cousin and 28 years of age, left her one month after the birth of her child having married someone else. One and a half months later he took the child away without her knowledge. In the weeks and months following this kidnap, Suraya became withdrawn and would not stay at home. She would wander around the village and in the fields. She would not talk to anyone. The child is now 5 years old, and was only re-united with Suraya a year ago after a death bed plea by the father of the ex-husband to reunite mother with child. The child went back to Suraya but had no feelings for her. He acknowledges her as his mother but does not call her mother. Indeed, he prefers to stay with his paternal grandmother. And a few days ago, the paternal grandmother took him away again. Suraya provided for his schooling in the year that he was with her family but he receives no schooling at his grandmother’s.

At 14 she went to work for a garment factory in Mirpur, Dhaka. No one asked her age when she enrolled in Vision. She could pass for a thirteen year old today, and four years ago she must have looked younger. The “regime” at Vision was tough. She was a “helperi” - a helper who sorts and cuts threads for operators. The supervisors and line managers (both male and female) would curse and swear at the operators and helperis. Sometimes they would physically hit the workers if things weren’t going to plan. She would work for eight hours at a stretch sometimes standing for the whole time and without any food. She would then get two hours off, at which time she would rush off home, and then return for another two hours of over time. Access to the filthy toilets was controlled and sometimes an attendant would be sent along to ensure against theft, and to ensure that people returned within a short space of time. At Vision, she witnessed the sexual abuse of a pretty girl who worked with her. The girl was wooed by a particular line manager but she rejected his advances. She was called upstairs one day and was assaulted. The girl came downstairs after her ordeal and bravely declared that no one should go through what she just did. Like the character in Monica Ali’s book, Brick Lane, she was ostracised. More than that they moved against her and sometime later managed to pin the blame for some mishap on her. Her punishment was severe – they cut her hair – a punishment by no means unknown in this industry as I will discuss in another interview I have conducted with another worker.

Three months into the job a huge fire at a factory near her and owned by the same company claimed the lives of many. Suraya got frightened and left with some other girls. She found a job at Fashion, Mirpur. The regime there was easier. Last year at Fashion, she received 1500 taka per month ( about a hundred british pounds). Out of that she had to pay for her accommodation and her food. She decided to go and work as a domestic help for a mere 900 takas per month. She says she prefers it as the work is less physically demanding, and her food and lodgings are included…