SPENCER MICHELS: The morning rush is well under way by 7:00 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of workers, many of them women, converge on the capital's industrial center for the first shift of the workday. Most end up in factories like this, making garments for export. The garment industry is enormously important to the nation, and accounts for more than three-quarters of its export dollars. Jobs in these factories are also making a major difference in the lives of the women who work there. Many have come from the countryside, where their families survived on subsistence farming and fishing; 20-year-old Ruma is a case in point. Like many women, she left school in the fifth grade and moved to Dhaka to find work. She is the main provider for her family.
RUMA, Garment Worker (Translated): My father died when I was in fifth grade. That's why I went to work. This is a good workplace. There are no difficulties getting paid, and the work is steady. I'm a skilled worker. I've had wage increases and promotions, and I hope to get promoted again.
SPENCER MICHELS: When she began working, she earned $10 a month. Today she earns $55 as a seamstress specialist. Women like Ruma make up 85 percent of the industry's 1.6 million workers. Usually treated as second-class citizens with few rights or privileges, women have found that the garment industry has taken them out of their traditional roles and given them new opportunities. Yet the work is hard. A coworker of Ruma is 18-year-old Yasmin, a seamstress who says twelve-hour days and six- day work weeks are routine.
YASMIN, Garment Worker (Translated): I've been working here eight months. Right now I cut threads and mark patterns for French children's clothes. I'm expert at this; we're all expert. I live with my aunt in a one-room shelter. It's all we can afford. I earn a base of 900 taka a month, and 1,500 taka if there's overtime.
SPENCER MICHELS: That works out to typical industry-wide wages of $17 a month, $27 with overtime, the best wages Yasmin has had since leaving her rural village three years ago, but it's still barely enough to survive. Garment manufacturers have been under attack from human rights groups to raise wages, but manufacturers say they have to keep them low to remain competitive on the world market. Luftor Rahman is a factory owner and a director of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association.
LUFTOR RAHMAN, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Association: We are facing competition in other countries. For instance, China, Vietnam, India are our main competitors. So we have no other alternative. We are forced to accept the very lower prices just for survival.
SPENCER MICHELS: The 3,500 garment factories in Bangladesh have been known for having some of the worst working conditions in the world. In the last decade, several hundred workers died in factory fires, casualties blamed on the lack of sprinklers and locked exit doors. Under pressure from consumers, foreign companies have tried to persuade those factories to treat workers more humanely.
LUFTOR RAHMAN: We must improve the working conditions, their health conditions, what... the code of conduct we have to implement. Otherwise, it is very difficult to survive.
SPENCER MICHELS: Now a few factories are installing fire exits and providing other amenities that were unheard of two years ago, things like lunch breaks, child care, and sanitary toilets.
LUFTOR RAHMAN: I believe the workers are interested to stay more time inside the factories than in their residences because of the good condition and electricity and a nice environment like this. They're using our toilets, they're using our bathrooms, they are using our washrooms.
SPENCER MICHELS: One of the most significant improvements may be this medical clinic. It's a pilot project of the Manufacturers Export Association and the United Nations population fund. It is designed to meet some of the urgent health needs of garment workers. About 200 patients come here each day. Some are in poor health because of malnourishment and unsanitary conditions, but many come who have been seriously injured on the job. Aminul Islam directs the clinic.
AMINUL ISLAM: We have to face a lot of injuries-- for example, needle injuries, burn injuries, burns from boilers. We are using these people to get the business of this country run, and you see that 76 percent earnings of Bangladesh now is from garment export, and we are exporting at the cost of their blood.
SPENCER MICHELS: The same U.N. Fund also launched the Dhopur Maternity Center. It is one of the very few modern health facilities in this medically underserved city. Dr. Humayra Begum says the facility has made a difference.
DR. HUMAYRA BEGUM, Dhopur Maternity Clinic: When I appointed in this post, in the last two years back, at that time there were pretty few people, almost 10 percent people, went to the health center for their health service. But now almost 50 percent to 60 percent are coming to the hospital and are taking their hospital delivery.
SPENCER MICHELS: This woman, a garment worker, has had a difficult pregnancy. She would likely have lost her baby and possibly her own life while giving birth at home with an unskilled attendant, the way two-thirds of Bangladeshi women still deliver, but the maternity hospital monitored her pregnancy and arranged for a surgeon to deliver the child by cesarean section, an all but unheard of procedure in this country.
DR. HUMAYRA BEGUM: If government set up this type of maternity in the whole of Bangladesh, then I can think it will be possible to provide service to all people, all family level, it is possible.
SPENCER MICHELS: For many women these facilities have provided their first access to quality health care, and the jobs in the factories have given them their first taste of empowerment, self-sufficiency, and self- determination, but Suneeta Mukherjee of the U.N. Population Fund sees factory work for women as a mixed blessing.
SUNEETA MUKHERJEE, U.N. Population Fund: Well, women getting out of the countryside and coming to urban areas in the factories for working is definitely economic empowerment, but wages are low. Conditions are not as good as they should be, whether health conditions or working conditions. Working hours are long, and sometimes women do not have the right to use the money they're earning. And all this leads to the conclusion that it does not empower them as much as it should.
SPENCER MICHELS: Ruma, however, believes the changes have been empowering for her.
WOMAN (Translated): I'm contributing to my family. In the future I want to become better at my job and have my own family and a home of my own. I think if I work hard, my prospects will improve.
SPENCER MICHELS: Continuing to improve those prospects for Ruma and workers like her while facing stiff competition from other poor nations has become a priority for Bangladesh.