Monday, April 24, 2006

Nothing to Lose but their Chains

A change-- slow but steady-- has taken place in our labour market-- because they are cheap, more and more women are hired for hard physical work like masonry or brick-breaking, a job long been put aside for men. These women-workers are ruthlessly exploited in a capitalist economic system that is shamelessly male chauvinist and that can only survive by base profiteering. Their gender sticks them out in a crowd of male workers and their employers strip them off the basic benefits that any human being should be entitled to in a civilised society. Like the forlorn days of slavery, these women-workers have nothing to lose but the invisible chain that shackles them.

In a neon-lit street Nazli awaits her turn in a queue with an empty pallet in hand. The droplets of sweat that fall from her forehead or a rivulet that flows on her waist may testify her long work hours that have started early in the morning. Nazli moves forward when the man standing in front of her staggers away with a pallet-full of sand on his head. Her hand tautens and her torso stoops as she slowly takes the receptacle on a small coiled cap made of a piece of soiled lungi, carefully split in two. She lurches in the dark, unsteadily picking her way through the seven-storied building, which is under construction for the last six months. This time round she has to deliver the cone of sand to the mixer, on the third floor, near the veranda where a tribe of masons prepares a mixture of cement, sand and pellets.

She is not the only woman at the building site. Ten others are also there; most of them carry bricks and sand. The clean blue sky suddenly darkens and it is going to rain soon. Nazli knows, be it a beating sun or pouring, rain she has to move on with her work. For her, life remains an everyday struggle.

Women-labourers across the country are being exploited for their gender: Nazli earns Tk 50 a day whereas Hassan, her husband, earns twice the amount for the same work. Habibur Rahman, a gender expert at Care Bangladesh, puts it into a greater perspective. "There is a preconceived notion that a woman’s rightful place is at the household where she should keep her husband’s house," he says. Though reality proves otherwise, on the job market popular prejudice runs in favour of men, as they are perceived to be more hardworking. "In reality," Rahman says, "as far as manual labour is concerned, women are more productive and sincere than men".

But that hardly counts; Nazli is a case in point: Nurul, the building contractor under whose supervision Nazli works, agrees that she carries more pallets of sand that most of the men, but he thinks women should not get more than men because that would put their "families" into trouble. Interestingly in most of the instances, when the issue of increasing their wage turns up, women labourers face a great solid wall, defended heavily by their husbands. "Husbands cannot stand their wives getting equal wages because they think it will give their wives a louder voice in decision making," says Rahman.

Hassan admits that it would have made their lives more bearable if Nazli had earned more, but he guards against the idea of an equal wage. This belief is widespread, and it is, in fact, their husbands, the women-labourers have to fight with to get a raise. Rahman draws an example from a site in Cox’s Bazaar where both women and men had been employed to dig the earth. When Care moved for an equal right to wages for women-labourers who were getting a third of what their male compeers were getting, the organisation confronted the first barrier from male workers. "For men are befouled by patriarchal values, most of them think if women earn more they will lose ‘control’ of them," Rahman says.

Employers, on the other hand, refused to pay more to woman-labourers and there is a steady stream of labour coming out of the outlying areas. Rahman and fellow Care members bargained and had come to a compromise: From Tk 50, women’s wage was raised to Tk 70 against men’s Tk 150 a day.

There is a law in the country against discrimination at work; it stipulates that, men and women should be treating equally, but this regulation is merely on paper. "On an average a female worker earns one third of what a man gets," says Rokeya Rafique, director of Karmojibi Nari, a non-governmental organisation. Rokeya highlights the fact that National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWC) had set a minimum wage of Tk 930 in 1994, and at that time workers were told that every three years the commission would review the wage structure. But that promise has never kept: in the last 12 years, Rafique says, the NWC members have sat only once and even on that occasion they spent their time on endless trivialities.

"It is sad that," says Rahman, "while the price of essentials is skyrocketing, these poor people have been told to make do with a Tk 930 minimum wage." But in different cases even this paltry sum of money is not given to the workers.
For women-labourers like Nazli work is an uphill struggle against an apathetic society. Beyond the discriminations a woman faces at work lie the exploitations she has to endure just to earn the day’s meal. Nazli has never heard of maternity leave; she lives hand to mouth, she says, her employer will turn her away when she bears a child. "Every woman who works in this sector has been denied of maternity or sick leaves," Rokeya says. The law is discriminatory as it is, she continues, for a government employee is entitled to 4 months maternity leave whereas it is 3 months for female workers. But when it comes to construction workers, this rule is grossly flouted.

The law, which exists just on paper, requires owners to set up a day care centre where children of female workers will be reared till they reach their sixth year. Most young mothers do not have any other way but to bring their children to the sites to breast-feed; at times it is difficult to get a secluded place where they could nurse the little ones. Though this quasi-feudal society has not quite learned to make room for them into the workforce, more and more women are coming out of the ghettos, braving the odd glance of the society.

"Women workers almost at every site have to share toilets with male workers," Rahman points out. Access to basic amenities, in fact, a far cry in an industry where taking leave for the day costs one a day’s meal; one may as well lose one’s job.

This is not Nazli’s first job; before this she used to work at a neighbouring site at a higher wage. One day she did not turn up at work for she was taken ill; still sick, she went to work the next day and found out that the "gap had been filled up"-- the employer had hired a cheap new hand in her place.

Nazli does not have a choice either. She left her village in Monga-ridden Rangpur for a better fortune in Dhaka eight months ago. Meeting Hassan in a shanty had led to their marriage, but a sense of financial security for which she had hit this cruel city still eludes her. Every day, Nazli says, she goes to work with a tremor in her heart. "Hassan brings home more, but what I earn goes on our house-rent and if I lose the job, we both will be undone," she says.
In fact capitalism banks on this sense of pervasive insecurity prevalent among the workers. "Women workers do not have that minimum bargaining power which men wield, and for this reason their job is less secure and they are constantly manipulated by contractors and fellow male workers," Rahman says. Most of them, he goes on, are not skilled; this, colleagued with their sexuality have made them the softest target of this capitalist economy.
Rahman says it is nearly impossible to organise them into a group as they keep changing jobs. These invisible women, who toil in the heat and get drenched in the rain, are ignored in major political and economic decision making.


The apartment complex where Nazli and Hassan are working will be finished in a year or so. Nurul the contractor boasts that the lobby is going to be furnished in an Art Deco style. From the mural, which is going to adorn the entrance, we shift our focus to a six feet by six feet room, which Nazli and Hassan call their home. The shack, the second in a row of around 50 shanties, is made of bamboo sticks and sheets of polythene. One has to hunch into the room, and whenever a rough wind blows the polythene-roof sways in the gust; there are times when the couple wakes up at night in pouring rain.

"Most of the female workers work at night," says Habibur Rahman, "because only at this time they can avoid the prying eyes of men". There are other factors at work too: In the day women workers have a list of errands to run-- from housekeeping to cooking to attending ailing family members…The list is endless.

Coming out of the four walls of the house has given these women some degree of freedom. At the same time, thinks Rahman, women have yet to have any say in decision-making in the family. "At the end of the day," he says, "she has to give the money away to her husband". Even their marriages are arranged by the male members of their family.
Some are left to face an uncertain future by their husbands. Many slip into underground economy-- the dream of a quick change in fortune lures many women workers into peddling. In each of the cases, the threat of abject poverty looms large over one’s shoulder; the dream of making a quick buck in Dhaka, the capital, where money floats in the air, turns into a recurring nightmare.

They remain a dense bunch of sad faces in a crowd, invisible to everyone-- to the nouveaux riche, armed with the money earned from blackmailing and bootlegging, in their chauffeur-driven cars; or to the greedy middle classes who blame each and everyone in this "accursed" country for their misfortunes and talk about emigrating to the fairyland across the Atlantic. It is indeed not ironic that the women who build other people’s dwellings, in most cases, are themselves left homeless.