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Natalia Yang - Blog Post 1: Finding Inspiration in a Challenging Situation

Natalia Yang - Blog Post 1: Finding Inspiration in a Challenging Situation

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In April 2013, two months before my internship to work with a refugee and migrant rights organization in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the media exploded with recent reports on the collapse of the garment factory in Rana Plaza. This happened just outside of the city center, in the suburbs of Dhaka, where men and women (80% women) migrate from rural villages of Bangladesh into Dhaka to find work in factories. This was a devastating and eye-opening tragedy and the news really shook me. All I could think was "Why"? Why did it have to come to the deaths of thousands of underpaid, over-exploited, hardworking garment workers for us to realize the severe flaws in our current global economic system?

On my first week in Dhaka, and working at my office desk, my supervisor told me to look out the window. Outside was a procession of women marching down the street, in colourful Salwar Kameez. In Bangladesh, a large crowd of women outside, and in public, is almost unthinkable. My daily commute from work to home sees barely a handful of women outside. While Dhaka is attempting to move towards progressive gender equality, there is a force of fundamentalist Islamism that continues to beat it down. It is still a traditional society, and women take minimal amount of space in the public sphere. Therefore, when I saw this march of fifty or so women, walking proudly in colourful garb, I was curious. I asked my supervisor and he said they were garment workers, protesting against a repeat of Rana Plaza. They were marching for improved rights for workers. The bravery of this act was intensified by the very reason I just mentioned.

The public space in Dhaka is still very male-centered. This is especially apparent at the tea stands, at outside food vendors and any open spaces for relaxing and loitering. From what I’ve seen, many of the women I see outside are hurrying to someplace. Men are much more free to loiter around on the street, catch up with their neighbourhood vendors and friends. Smoke in groups while people-watching. Sit around on benches and play music in the open. This privilege is not afforded to women, and while it is not illegal for women to engage in such activity, it is socially frowned upon. It is not just social discomfort that women may encounter, but the risk of harassment. For this group of women to march so proudly, so bravely and with such purpose on the crowded streets of Palton, the downtown center, it was so inspiring for me to see.

There have been more inspiring stories I've heard in my short time here. In the weeks following the collapse, volunteers from around Bangladesh came to the site of the collapse and formed search teams to dig up any bodies that they could find. Due to the undocumented nature of garment factory workers, so many of the workers could easily just be erased and forgotten. Families could be left without compensation and without a proper burial for their loved ones. So many people volunteered to do this tedious work. From what I’ve heard, the smell of rotting flesh and the suffocating cloud of rubble and dust was overpowering, and yet many kept going. It’s the little stories like this that restore my faith in humanity, to care for our brothers and sisters. To offer help in the most desolate and hopeless of situations. These are the people who carry the world forward: those who can still see humanity in face of politics.

In a globalized industry like the garment business, the responsibility for what happened is also global. I am as much a participant in the exploitative practices that were happening, and are still happening today. Not just in the garment industry either. It just happens that it was in this particular sector that this tragedy was committed. Human rights abuses can happen in all sectors, formal or informal, public or private. Particularly with the unregulated nature of migrant work, exploitation can happen behind closed doors in employer-employee relationships.

With globalization comes a greater mobility of labour. The need to move away from home for work has several reasons: it can be climactic, political, or economic. In many cases, migrant workers are left with no choice, but to leave their homes to work far away. While globalized economies provide these job opportunities for men and women who would otherwise be impoverished and struggling, it also makes them more vulnerable to abusive working conditions and deprivation of rights. The livelihoods and support networks of rural to urban migrant labourers are diminished, and to go day in and day out in this way should not be called living.

I've realized that the opportunity to be here in Dhaka, Bangladesh is not one of hedonism or relaxation. Living in a city that has been rated as one of the most uninhabitable, a vacation was never on my mind when I decided to accept this internship. From what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and what people have been willing to share with me, the value that I can take from living in Dhaka is to have an eye-opening experience. To unlearn everything that I have become accustomed to, the luxuries, entitlements, rights that I previously believed to be basic and universal. Living in Dhaka is an opportunity to not be blinded by pretty marketing ploys that shaded my eyes before from the working and living conditions of workers halfway across the world.

My day-to-day living situation in Dhaka is still crusted in privilege. It is not what many in Canada would call luxury, but that is exactly what it is here in Bangladesh. I have an apartment overlooking a neighbourhood with amendments of corner stores and street markets, running water, electricity, “disposable” income to buy small comforts like peanut butter and internet connection (I will never take for granted a good internet connection, again). I am blessed, and that is one of the most important things to remember. It will carry me through this internship. I am blessed, not only living where I do in Canada, but also living here in Bangladesh. It has been a struggle to let go of a lot of the comforts that I have become used to in fair weathered, walking friendly, “coffee shop on every block” Victoria, B.C. Nevertheless, the experience of being somewhere that day-to-day slaps me in the face with the inescapable knowledge of my privileged life is a lesson that I won’t soon forget.