When filmmakers Hannan Majid and Richard York shot their documentary about the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh, they could not have predicted the building collapse in Rana Plaza would focus global attention on the ethics behind the outsourcing practices in the apparel industry.
York and Majid's timely film, The Machinists, is a visual document of the exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh. The film gives voice to three young people working in the factories in Dhaka.
The filmmakers first introduce viewers to a young woman whose husband abandoned her when she was pregnant with her first child. She lives in one squalid room with seven other family members. She and her two sisters, who are also single mothers, work as machinists in the factories. "There are no other jobs for girls like us. That's how our lives have been written," she explains. "But once you start working garments, you're trapped."
The camera trails the three sisters on their way to work their usual 15-hour shift. Draped in bright saris, they walk along the muddy road and wonder aloud if they will be paid that day. They complain that they are never paid enough or on time; that paychecks are docked capriciously; and that overtime is mandatory, but often goes uncompensated.
While these women sew clothes for retail giants, their mother cares for their numerous young children. The children are restless inside their stifling, one-room dwelling. "They're running rings around me all day," the mother explains. She waves and waves a small fan over the half-naked bodies of her overheated grandchildren as she speaks. "Even when I want to rest, I can't."
Next, the film focuses on a garment worker in her early twenties whose family sent her from a village to work in the factories when she was only nine. She lives by herself in a dark hovel and secures its rusty corrugated metal door with a padlock. "No one would want to live in a place like this," she comments with a joyless, stony expression. "I'm trying so hard to escape."
Earlier that day, a needle from a sewing machine went through the woman's finger. The floor manager told her to rub machine oil into the wound instead of sending her to the doctor. "Now it hurts so much," she complains.
The woman's sense of isolation and misery is further palpable as she crouches on the dirt floor of her home to eat a meal of potatoes and spices. She explains she cannot afford to eat meat on her salary. Her monthly wage is $45 US, the price of a pair of knock-off jeans and much less than the monthly cost of living in Bangladesh.
Unchecked exploitation in the garment industry has made it impossible for her to save money or pay off debt. "If you are a minute late, you will lose a day's wage," she explained. "Just surviving feels like a distant dream."
After a grueling day at the factory, the woman begins another shift as a volunteer at the union office run by the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF.) She says she chooses to spend time in the company of those advocating for change rather than head home alone. At the small windowless office, NGWF members share a thermos of tea and learn about their constitutional rights as workers. "We're like a family," the woman says. "We take care of each other."
Later in the film, the camera bears witness to protests organized by NGWF in Dhaka. Garment workers march through the streets with bright red banners, demanding a fair living wage and safe working conditions despite the threat of losing their jobs for participating in the protest.
"Other people in other sectors of society are now supporting the protests," says Amirul Haq Amin, the president of the National Garment Workers Federation. Amin feels the consensus in Bangladesh is shifting and many believe garment workers deserve more. He claims the unjust treatment of garment workers is a result of pressure from foreign clothing companies on local factory management to continually lower production costs.
"They are building factories with our blood, sweat and tears," says the young woman from the village. "I wish people would buy clothes with a conscience. I wish they would stop and think what the real cost is for us here."
The Machinists will screen in New York City at 7PM on Sunday, May 11, 2013 at The Workers Unite Film Festival at the Cinema Village 22 East 12th St. at University Place.