HEJSupport Interview with Siddika Sultana, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO)
Amelie Owen (HEJSupport) sat down with Siddika Sultana, co-founder and Executive Director of the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), to speak about challenges faced by women working in the textile industry in Bangladesh.
Could you tell me about yourself and the work you have led on women in the textile industry in Bangladesh?
I have been working on gender issues since 1999. Starting with my work in the Bangladesh Women Health Coalition, I was specialized in women’s rights in all its different aspects from the approach to gender equality to the empowerment of women in the workplace. At the time, I also worked on reproductive health with a focus on HIV/AIDS awareness. I worked with the slum area population especially with women who live there and work a lot in the textile industry. I got to know more about the issues that they had with their health, especially Occupational Health Safety.
I have a degree in Social Sciences, but I also have a degree in Environmental Education from Japan and a diploma in Social Security specialized in gender focus. Moreover, I have experience as an expert speaker for women journalists, and some of my focus areas are gender equality, women in cience, and gender and chemical issues.
What are the main challenges faced by women working in the textile industry in Bangladesh?
Before I talk about the challenges, I will give an overview of the constitutional regulations in Bangladesh. The Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees equal rights between women and men and national law is set to place to safeguard women’s rights. In 2006, Bangladesh has passed a law on the fundamental rights of women workers, including the right to maternity leave. Bangladesh has also ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
However, the reality is very different, and women’s rights remain ineffective. The first kind of discrimination between men and women concerns wages. The other challenges are occupational health issues, safety and unhealthy environments. There is also nothing on personal care and hygiene. Mainly, they do not receive their legal benefits. Also, there is a lack of maternity leave.
The overtime of women in the textile industry is also the main issue: the long working day and the burden of domestic responsibilities deny women any recreation time and quality time with their families.
What are the specific health issues related to women in the industry?
The specific health issues are mainly related to Occupational Health and Safety (OHS). Though the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the need for people to ensure their rights at work, there are numerous situations when women are not being able to invoke their rights. There is a lack of hygienic facilities which deprive women of normal hygienic procedures during their menstrual periods, putting women’s health at risk. Women work also with chemicals and they are exposed to them. Moreover, their infants can also be exposed because sometimes mothers have to bring their kids to the workplace. Another factor is malnutrition among women. Low wages and long working hours mean that women are constantly undernourished.
Is there data showing the impact of the textile industry on the health of women workers?
In the latest data, 80% of Bangladesh textile workers are women. Women in the textile industry work between 9 to 12 hours a day, often 7 days a week. They are exposed to an unhealthy physical environment like loud noises, bad lighting, hazardous chemicals, dust, poor or no proper ventilation system or protective gear. This is accompanied by unfriendly working conditions, including lack of access to sanitation, low wages, lack of food, and health breaks.
Here are some figures showing occupational health problems faced by women in the sector: 88% headaches, 48% fatigue, 46% eye problems, 43% hearing problems and 27% hypertension problems. 75% of women are facing hand pain, 73% lower back pain, 53% shoulder pain, 43% chest pain and 40% abdomen pain. Exposure to toxic chemicals and dust results in the situation when 55% of women face respiratory problems and 37% have allergies.
Additionally, our data shows that many women have anxiety, phobias and depression as a result of negligence at the workplace. Moreover, 75% of women fear accidents, 73% fear no leisure time or the irregularity in salary. If a serious illness happens, companies do not offer any social benefits and often ask women to leave and not come to work again.
Are there cases of inequality related to women workers?
Inequalities are everywhere in the textile industry starting with wages: for the same work, women are paid less than men. Overall, women workers are treated differently than men. They are deprived of justice and proper treatment, for example during pregnancy and motherhood. In short, there are no excuses for women to skip a day of work due to the poor health conditions of themselves or their children. Besides, in these institutions women workers often face sexual harassment, do not get their salary on time and are bound to do extra hours.
Are there women leaders standing for women’s rights in the textile industry in your country?
There are women in Bangladesh who are tirelessly fighting for the rights of workers. Nazma Akter is one of them. After working in the textile industry for 25 years, she created her organization named the Awaj Foundation, which means “Say Loudly” in Bengali. The organization advocates for women workers’ rights in the textile sector.
The Garment Workers Union Federation is also led by a woman. Nomi Tanat is the president of the Union.
Another institution helping women in the garment industry is the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. It is led by Rubana Huq, a woman who is passionate about providing women with training opportunities that help them access management positions.
Are there textile companies in Bangladesh producing organic textile? Are the working conditions better there in comparison to conventional textile production?
Nowadays many companies are turning to environmentally-sound production. Several Bangladesh factories have received the Global Organic Standard (GOTS) certification. Bangladesh topped the list of organic producing factories in terms of the total number of GOTS certificates in 2019. A few organic textile working groups are there: Akij Textiles Mills Ltd (yarn and makes organic fabrics), Amanat Shah Fabrics Ltd (producing fabrics), Amim Denim Ltd (produce the fabrics) and J Mix Clothing Ltd (produce clothing).
I saw for myself that these companies are trying to make the working conditions better for all employees. Furthermore, the Karu Ponno Foundation works to ensure the amelioration of the environment and occupational safety in those companies.
Do you know about any public campaigns supporting the rights of textile workers in Bangladesh?
Many organizations are working hard to improve the working conditions and ensure human rights in the textile sector in Bangladesh. Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), the Awaj Foundation, and Labor Behind The Label are the key organizations addressing these issues in my country. The BCWS works closely with the international solidarity campaigns to raise global awareness about the working conditions in the textile sector in Bangladesh.
What should be the next steps to improve the conditions of women in the textile industry?
The garment Industry is the main economic source in Bangladesh. Companies that are involved in textile and clothing production have to become women-friendly and invest in a healthy environment and safe working conditions for both women and men. They must maintain workers’ safety and provide women with the rights they deserve, given that women are not only the majority of garment workers, but they are also the first environment for their children.
The government of Bangladesh must ensure full gender equality in the textile sector, starting with wages and other benefits. It must give women the right to claim sick leave, ensure access to proper sanitation services, and never demand to spend more time at work under the threat of dismissal or wage cuts.
It is crucial to involve the community in the process of improving women’s labor in the textile industry. Forming groups of factory workers to prepare demands for improvements in the workplace will put pressure on factory management. Also, women should play an active role in such groups. Only then the demands made to employers will truly reflect the needs of women. To do this, it is important to raise awareness of women workers about occupational health and safety, nutrition and women’s health.
Find out more information about the work of Siddika Sultana and ESDO here: https://esdo.org/