Bithi’s story: child labour in the textile and apparel industries
At 12 years old, Bithi was sent by her family to work in a garment factory. She is one of the millions of children toiling away in the $284-billion global textile and apparel sector.
The needle hums, fingers fly and piles of cloth are stitched together at record speed.
“60 pockets an hour,” the 15-year-old behind the sewing machine explains.
Squished inside a second story room with 20 other Bangladeshi women, the girl hunches over her machine while fluorescent lights beam hard overhead.
Bithi is one of millions of children around the world toiling away in the $284-billion global textile and apparel sector. From children working in high-pressure garment factories in Bangladesh to young girls working in Indian yarn and spinning mills, child labour is rife in these industries. Many of these children work in fields harvesting cotton; small, informal and unauthorized factories performing duties such as sewing pockets and buttons, cutting threads or running materials; or in homes, performing fine needle and embroidery work.
“The first day I felt bad, I thought it wasn’t good. I was too small. I was surrounded by other older people. That first day, I cried,” she remembers.
But that was three years ago, when Bithi was 12. Now, it’s routine — no more tears are spilled. Every day, Bithi helps create a minimum of 480 pairs of pants for 83.3 taka [1.07 USD].
The cost of fast fashion
In Bithi’s case, abject poverty and a sick father forced her parents to send her to the garment factory to sew designer clothes with a destination of shops in high-income countries like Canada.
In 2014, more than 406 companies imported textile and apparel goods, similar to the products Bithi works on, into Canada. Fast fashion has driven a race to the bottom, allowing companies to find cheaper sources of labour. Desperate, girls like Bithi are pushed to work for very low prices and some are brought into these industries under the false promises of earning decent wages, meals, training and schooling.
The younger, the better
But in a way, Bithi feels grateful for the work. Her factory is a good one, she says assuredly.
Her boss, 24-year-old Muhammad Shoel Rana, says Bithi is a good worker and he quickly promoted her from factory helper to machine operator.
“Young people normally are faster, they have good work speed,” he says.
His shop is small — sub-contracting jobs from other larger garment factories — and government policies about child labour go unheeded, like in so many other places. “The wages we’re giving from this factory is not enough, even me, in charge, I feel that,” Muhammad admits.
Still, for Bithi, it’s okay. She says the job has no problems, no fires and a nice boss. When she was injured on the job, a misplaced finger leading to the needle stabbing her and blood spurting around her sewing machine, she was able to take the rest of the day off to heal.
Making ends meet
Bithi’s mother, 39-year-old Feroza, is unapologetic about starting Bithi in a garment factory before she was even a teenager.
“There was no food, not even rice. I cry when I remember those days. I thought it’s better for us to die than not to have food,” Feroza remembers inside the family’s one-room home where all eight family members sleep.
At the time, Feroza’s husband was bedridden. He couldn’t work. The family was in crisis.
For a year and a half, Feroza juggled domestic work, raised the six children and ran a bag-making business. Still, ends wouldn’t meet. So she did what her parents did to her when they arrived in Dhaka decades ago. Feroza sent Bithi to work in a garment factory at 12.
“As a mother, I feel sad but I still have to be realistic,” Feroza says.
Bithi previously attend the non-formal primary education school, part of the World Vision Street Children Project. She used to attend the centre daily on her way home from work. It was the highlight of her day, she says.
When Bithi sees other girls her age in their blue and white checkered school uniforms, she admits to feeling “painful, my heart breaks.” She once had a dream for the future, to be a doctor, but she’s given up on that dream.
“Now I just dream of standing on my own feet,” she says.
We need your help to bring much needed attention to the plight of child labourers like Bithi in the textiles and apparel industry, and call for transparency in the global supply chain. Take action at http://s.wvc.ca/ChildLabourStudy.
Originally published at www.worldvision.ca.