Latifa Begum is enjoying the winter sunshine with her granddaughter Amena sitting on the front yard of her house. Amena is 70 days old. Amena's mother Safina is 21 years old and a ready-made garments (RMG) worker. Safina had to leave her young baby with her mother so she could go back to work, otherwise, she would lose her job and 'wouldn't be able to support her family anymore.'
It's not just Safina, this is a common fate of thousands of women, who leave their child to someone to go to work.
At the age of 18, Safina joined a renowned garment factory as a lower-tier employee. Her husband was a van driver in his village but didn't go to work regularly. A few days later, both of them left for Dhaka, rented a house, and she became pregnant within some months. There was hardly any scope for Safina to sit or rest. She had to climb up stairs even eight months into her pregnancy.
In general, most RMG workers are migrants from other districts and from impoverished backgrounds. Many of them are uneducated or less educated and decided to come in search of a better future. Eight hours is their usual daily working hours. Sometimes, the duration extends to 10 to 12 hours or more, as overtime for extra income.
A pregnant woman or new mother working for this time duration is quite harsh. Sometimes, higher authorities allegedly 'create' situations where expectant mothers are forced to resign, so the factory does not have to pay allowance for maternity leave.
If RMG workers arrive late for work, they have to face admonitions, misbehavior, and abusive language from supervisors, which affects their mental health. If an employee is late for three days, a day's salary is deducted, irrespective of whether she is pregnant or unwell. The workload and pressure to meet targets are the same for pregnant workers, as it is for others.
Recent statistics show that 4.2 million people are directly engaged in the RMG sector,, and 60% are women (ILO, January, 2020). Under section 45 of Bangladesh Labor Act 2006, pregnant women are entitled to 16 weeks of maternity leave with full wages to be taken either side of the due date. But another recent study shows that only 28.7% of the workers get maternity leave for four months.
Although the RMG sector is the largest employment sector for women in our country, women face discrimination over the issue of maternity leave in the public and private sectors.
Mothers who work in public sectors get six months of maternity leave, while on the other hand, in the private sector, a mothers' leave depends on the company's management. Most often, garments managers and owners refuse to provide maternity leave with full allowance.
When on the other side of the world developed countries are making policies to increase parental leave, here in our country, RMG worker mothers fight to get four months maternity leave. Medical check-up and healthcare facilities are hardly provided to pregnant mothers by their employers.
A mother shouldn't work under unbearable pressure in her workplace and care for her baby and maintain her family at the same time.
22-year-old garments worker Muslima said she had to work eight hours when she was eight months pregnant. These situations are quite depressing. Sometimes they become afraid to ask for a leave from their owners, even though it is mentioned in the labour act.
Maternity leave is necessary for the mother's mental and physical health as well as for the health of the child. The laws, and policies formulated by BGMEA for maternity leave, should be implemented properly by the owners. Otherwise the Ministry of labour should monitor the situation. The owners of garments factories must abide by laws and government rules. Working conditions should be flexible for pregnant mothers, and proper healthcare facilities need to be followed.
A mother is a mother, irrespective of whether she is a worker or not. The needs of a mother do not vary from their types of work. Maternity benefits should no longer be treated as a privilege but a right of women.
Sadika Haque is a Professor at Bangladesh Agricultural University.
Co-authors of this article are Fatema Tuj Zohora Hira, Md Salman, Dewan Abdullah Al Rafi. They are graduate students of the Department of Agricultural Economics.