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Disasters inject fear into Bangladesh factory life

Saturday - 6/8/2013, 9:48pm  ET

FILE - In this Monday, April 29, 2013 file photo, a Bangladeshi worker leaves the site where a garment factory building collapsed in the Savar area on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Pushed by poverty and pulled by the hope of a better life, the residents of the village of Tekani, Bangladesh have for almost a decade been making the trip south to the capital. But with neighbors and relatives killed and maimed in the Tazreen factory fire in November 2012 and the collapse of Rana Plaza factory building in April 2013, terror has overtaken the village of about 1,800 people in far northwestern Bangladesh. (AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous, File)

CHRIS BLAKE
Associated Press

TEKANI, Bangladesh (AP) -- Twice a year, buses filled with garment workers come rumbling into Tekani, shaking the houses made of mud and tin, and alerting villagers that their loved ones are home for the holidays.

Wearing new outfits bought specially for the Muslim Eid festival, and boasting of a regular income, they cut a striking image of success in a village where most own no land, have no steady jobs and are among the poorest people in one of the poorest regions of one of the world's poorest countries.

Three days later, the buses begin the nine-hour ride back to suburban Dhaka, creeping along the same narrow road covered with drying rice husks and jutted with potholes. The workers are invariably joined by hundreds of fresh recruits from Tekani and its sister villages who will work alongside them in factories making clothing worn around the globe. They are the fuel that powers a $20 billion garment industry that is the world's third-largest.

Mosammat Almuna Begum once dreamed of sending her 21-year-old daughter on one of those buses. No longer.

"It's better to stay hungry here," she said. "There is no safety there."

Pushed by poverty and pulled by the hope of a better life, Tekani people have for almost a decade been making the trip south to Dhaka. But with neighbors and relatives killed and maimed in the Tazreen factory fire in November, and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in April, terror has overtaken this village of about 1,800 people in far northwestern Bangladesh. Many question whether the industry's shaky promise is worth the sacrifice.

Before the disasters, which together claimed 1,241 lives, five to 10 people from Tekani would leave every month for the garment factories. Now, villagers say they know of no person planning to make the trip soon, and many who had left want to come back.

"They're scared of staying there now," said Mohammad Ashraful. The market vendor was on a trip home from Dhaka, where he lives with his wife, a garment worker who wanted to leave the industry. He was urging her to stick it out.

"Maybe it will pass," he said. "I'm not sure."

___

Tekani's green and amber fields stretch to each horizon, a lush inland sea of rice, corn and other crops ripening under the tropical sun. The small, raised road that cuts through the paddies leads to shady orchards, branches weighed down with mangoes and jackfruit.

Despite this bounty, Tekani has never been able to offer its people what they want most: jobs.

When global garment manufacturers turned to Bangladesh for cheap labor and factories started springing up around Dhaka, Tekani residents finally had an alternative to staying in a village that doesn't even have electricity.

Now 4,000 of the roughly 25,000 people who live in Tekani and nine other nearby villages have left for garment work, said Nur Alom, the area's elected chairman. Sixty percent are women.

"This is 100 percent for economic reasons, and this is positive," he said. "Many people have no land and it is difficult to get by here."

The attraction is clear: Factory work is easy to get and requires no skills; the factories will hire and train almost anyone. In turn, manufacturers get to draw on the massively underutilized workforce in this densely populated nation of 160 million, one willing to toil for a minimum wage that even today is equivalent to just $38 a month.

Experienced workers get more money, and overtime pay is common, but even particularly skilled garment workers rarely make more than $100 a month.

In Tekani farm work is low-paid and seasonal. Younger people, especially those now finishing all 10 years of free schooling, see it as beneath them.

Some start small businesses here, if they have the money, or travel each day to more populated areas to do manual labor or pull rickshaws.

But those who dream of upward mobility head to the factories. "Office work," they call it.

"It is a matter of pride," Alom said.

Kulsuma Begum, who came home two years ago to give birth to her youngest son, hopes that when he is older she can return to the industry. Her brother and cousin worked in Tazreen and survived the fire, but she doesn't think every factory is bad.

"That life was better for me," the 25-year-old said. "I used to get cash at the end of every month. But that isn't the case here."

Bangladesh's garment boom has been accompanied by accusations of worker exploitation, abuse and a disregard for basic safety. Factory owners are so powerful that garment workers are unable to form unions, which are common in other Bangladeshi industries.

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