Director: Rubaiyat Hossain
Co-writers – Rubaiyat Hossain and Philippe Barriere
We are aware of the dreadful working conditions of the women who make our clothes earning low wages often under dangerous conditions. Fires are not unusual, killing numerous women, and yet, we continue to benefit from the low prices we pay for their labour. The film Made in Bangladesh, takes us into one factory where women work long hours under trying conditions, often being cheated out of their overtime wages under the eyes of male overseers, while the western companies under whose labels the work is done, profit from their work. The women’s situation can certainly be seen as slave labour with little they can do to improve their conditions.
A fire starts in the factory and the women panic; while most get out, one young woman dies and others are burned as well as traumatized. The factory starts up again and the women return to work. One of the young women, Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) is approached by a woman who is trying to organize the garment workers into unions. She interviews Shimu in her office and then approaches her with the idea of organizing a union, making promises that things will greatly improve if they are able to get the signatures of 30% of the workers. Shimu, whose husband, Sohel (Mostofa Monwar) is unemployed agrees to take photographs of the working conditions in her factory which she must do without getting caught. At one point, Shimu tapes a conversation between a western client of the shop touring the factory being assured by the manager that the working conditions are safe. When the conversation is translated, the westerner is asking for even cheaper rates. Shimu learns how much of a mark-up the clothes she sews, for so little, sell in the west.
The difficulties women encounter in the factory are depicted, including sexual exploitation. It is the woman who is fired when the supervisor and the young woman are found out. Another woman is fired for having union literature when the manager goes through the women’s purses. Another time the women work all night long to meet a deadline. When they are told to sleep in the factory until the morning, the overhead fan is shut off. The women demand that the fan be turned on, furious that while they give their all, they are treated so badly. The women’s language is very colourful, they swear freely and express their anger and frustration.
When Shimu’s husband starts up his own business he wants her to quit her job. She has been voted the president of the union and feels obligated to continue to get the signatures in order to get certified. He is not happy with her growing independence and harasses her, demanding that she dress more modestly. The women dress in colourful outfits, looking like flowers as they walk in the street, wearing brilliant scarves to cover their hair. Shimu dons a black hijab to please her husband but keeps on working.
When they have the number of signatures required to be certified as a union, she is told by the women organizers that she must go to the government office on her own. No one from their organization can accompany her. Even though Shimu has all the necessary documents, she is further stymied by the bureaucracy where she is given the run around. She goes back many times to no avail. She meets one nameless bureaucrat, “Madam”, who says the paperwork is with “Sir”, who is, of course, not available to her. She brings her friends with her on another occasion but only one person can go up to the offices, blocked by security. In this film we watch as Shimu becomes stronger, determined to make a difference for herself and the other women she works with.
When the director was asked the inevitable question, what do we in the West do about this exploitation, the answer is not to stop buying clothing from Bangladesh since, of course, the women need their jobs. We must become more knowledgeable consumers, pressing exploitative companies to ensure that the working conditions are safe.
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