A portrait they say, is not so much a likeness of the person being photographed, but a depiction of one’s character. More grand definitions talk of them being a ‘window to the soul’. I looked at my portrait of this ‘enemy of the country’ as a labour minister had declared, and wondered whether I had indeed found a window to her soul. She had just been arrested in Gazipur, and I had no further information.
With numerous cases strategically lodged all over the country on trumped up charges, her arrest was always on the cards. In today’s countrywide strike for workers’ pay, facing violent repression, their resistance was a defiant stand for the rights of the oppressed. She and the workers she represented, all knew the risks. She had to lead from the front, come what may.
One is generally kind to bread winners. They are the ones who sit at the head of the table, get the choice piece of meat, make after dinner speeches. Their comfort and their happiness is of prime importance to those who survive on that bread. Bangladesh earns 12 billion dollars from garment exports and gets three quarters of its export earnings from this single sector. One would imagine that the bread winners of Bangladesh, the two million garment workers, mostly women who had migrated from villages in search of work, would be offered a bit more than the Taka 1650 (less than USD 24) per month minimum wage.
But then these enemies of the country, didn’t stop at demanding more than a dollar a day for their work. They wanted weekends off, to be paid overtime, to be paid on time and enjoy statutory holidays. They even objected to their systematized sexual harassment.
So what if the garment sector was the most profitable, and the garment workers amongst the most poorly paid. Some workers getting paid as little as $ 12 a month maybe a bit on the low side, and maternity leave should really be given, but have some sympathy for the owners. Should the BGMEA bigwig owner who bought his wife the expensive Mercedes have to sell his car? It’s not only workers who find Bangladesh a difficult country to live in. The Merc, as I’ve been told, had been expensive to start with. With 850% tax being applied on luxury goods, the poor man had to pay nearly a million dollars for his wife’s set of wheels. OK, so it could have paid for a few $24/month salaries, but then his wife had other costs. They did have standards to maintain.
And these strikes were so annoying. Even in May, the death of the 25 year old worker Rana, led to unrest. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) had to give up its normal task of extrajudicial killings to deal with workers demanding decent wages.
I just heard that the campaign worked. Mishu’s been released. I should get on with my portraits. Perhaps I should photograph the garment owners to complement the picture of Mishu. Given my earlier failure with portraits, I would need to find the right metaphors for the window to their soul. A chunk of granite, glued to cold steel, wrapped in dollars could perhaps do the trick.
related links: Unheard VoicesShow