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 a hot and sweaty factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 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 the factory floor crowded with 350 workers. Fluorescent lights buzz and blink overhead. Enormous fans noisily push around the stagnant air.
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 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. 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 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 to other options available to women in this poor, traditional Muslim society. About 5,600 factories in Bangladesh employ more than 4 million people; 90 percent of the workers are female.
"It's not as dramatic of a transformation as a college education or launching a career," said Sajeda Amin, a sociologist and demographer who has studied the societal impact of the garment industry for the nonprofit Population Council in New York. But these jobs, she said, have opened a new pathway for teenage girls to make the transition from childhood to adulthood with a measure of independence.
The garment industry in Bangladesh is second only to China's. It draws workers largely from rural areas such as the tiny village of two dozen houses near the Indian border where Mollah grew up with three sisters. The eldest worked for two years in a garment factory before returning home to marry.
When their father, a rice farmer, fell ill and was unable to work, Mollah willingly took the factory job to help the family. She was 15 at the time, a year older than the legal minimum age for a factory worker.
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It's lunchtime at Beauty Garments Pvt. Ltd., and Mollah spills out the door with most of the other 350 workers for the hourlong break. She meets up with three other young women — her roommates — as they are walking to their apartment. All of them wear fashionable loose pants and tunics, called shalwar kameez, rather than the traditional flowing sari.
Their two-bedroom flat is two blocks away; it is in a concrete structure with metal bars and shutters on the windows, but no glass panes.
The four live in a 10-foot-by-12-foot room, with a ceiling fan and a bare light bulb. Two sleep on a double bed, two on a pad on the concrete floor. The women switch places every other week and split the $45-a-month rent. The second bedroom is occupied by a married couple, who also work at the factory, and their 6-year-old daughter.
All share a squat toilet, a porcelain-lined hole in the floor, and a common kitchen with two gas burners that sit on the floor. A refrigerator stands near the kitchen door, but the four women cannot use it because it is owned by the married couple. Their water comes from a community spigot 20 steps outside their front door.
Mollah and her roommates show off their apartment with pride, even though road dust blows through the windows, forcing them to keep their clothes bundled in bags. The paint is peeling, but the floor is meticulously clean.
Kanchi Hazi, the more outgoing of the roommates who constantly makes the others laugh, said she considers the sleeping arrangements luxurious compared to those at the small house she shared with her parents, six sisters and two brothers.
The 24-year-old left her home village seven years ago to take this factory job. She sews pockets on blouses and works as many hours as she can get. "I like it here," she said, arms akimbo, with fists on her hips. "I make my own decisions. I can earn money and help my family."
With overtime, she makes $78 a month and sends half of it home. Every few months, she makes the three-hour bus ride home to visit her family. When she steps off the bus, younger village girls dance around her. "They see me as a role model," Hazi said. "I can do whatever I want. I can enjoy myself. I have freedom."
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As more women earn money, this shift in economic clout is gnawing at the foundations of one of Bangladesh's stubbornly enduring traditions. An estimated 60 percent of girls marry before 18, the legal age for marriage. Most marriages are arranged by parents, who engage in a related practice that also violates the law but is rarely enforced: paying a dowry.
The dowry system skews toward marrying off daughters early, said Amin, the Population Council demographer who was born and raised in Bangladesh.
"We've been able to show very clearly that there's a premium on young girls in terms of how they are valued in looks and malleability," Amin said. "The older your daughter is, the more her worth goes down and you have to compensate with a larger dowry."
Garment factory jobs have begun to undercut this custom, as parents challenge how much, if any, dowry is required when the bride-to-be earns a steady salary.
"These women aren't rejecting arranged marriages," Amin said. "They want to get married, but later. They want to bear children, but at the right time."