What's Life In A Sweatshop Like? Ask This 9-Year Old Manager

Toronto Star reporter worked undercover in a Bangladeshi sweatshop.


What's it like to work in a sweatshop? The underbelly of global labor is rarely exposed to the light of day, but one reporter for the Toronto Star successfully landed a gig over the summer working undercover trimming threads at a garment factory in Bangladesh for the purpose of documenting the experience. And very early in her tenure, Raveena Aulakh found out just how extreme such a workplace can be -- her manager was a 9-year old girl named Meem. Aulakh documented the experience in a series, entitled, "Clothes On Your Back."

Meem's official title is "sewing helper" in the factory. The report said the factory has no name, employs about 45 people, and is run by a man named Hamid. It's located in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka in an area "clogged with rickshaws, crowded buses and fancy cars," according to the Toronto Star report.

Factory life
The factory had poor to no windows or lighting, no fire extinguishers and a toilet that qualified as more of a hole than a passable restroom, according to the report. (The report didn't specify which retailers work with the factory, but the country's factories are known to serve western retailers.) Meem, for her part, ended up in the job as the result of a "fairly common story among poor Bangladeshi families: too many mouths to feed, too few bringing in money," according to Aulakh.

In Meem's case, her mother recently had to give up a job working as a domestic helper in a wealthy household when she found out she was pregnant. Other family demands forced Meem to seek out the job in Hamid's factory. Setting aside Meem's age, and the gig would have still run afoul of many countries' labor standards: the job offered no weekends, except for a half-day every Friday, no sick leave and no holidays. But in a country where roughly a third of the population is living in poverty, according to the World Bank, this was in fact a "prized job," even for a nine-year old, according to the report. It paid around $30 a week.

And Meem apparently only beamed positivity. During the reporter's four days on the job, Meem showed up early to her 12-hour days, which spanned from 9 am to 9 pm, so she could prep her threads. She maintained a sunny disposition, dancing jigs and humming Bengali songs. (She was yelled at for the latter.) And even at her tender young age finding herself in such a situation, she was still hopeful about her career path. "When I become a sewing operator, I will make very good shirts," she said. "No one will yell at me."

The child worker
Her story is shockingly common. According to statistics compiled by UNICEF, one out of six children in the world today is involved in child labour, "doing work that is damaging to his or her mental, physical and emotional development." Areas with high concentration of child labor are the Asia-Pacific region and Sub-Saharan Africa.

With their near-perfect eyesight, small fingers and little recourse for complaining about their working conditions, the system "works for everyone" as Smitha Zaheed, of the Dhaka-based Independent Garment Workers' Union Federation, told the Toronto Star. "Factory owners get workers who are not demanding . . . while the parents get to keep what the kids earn because the kids don't know any better."

But those hopeful for change may have reason to believe a better day lies ahead for workers like Meem. The Star's report was inspired by the disaster in April at the Rana Plaza factory, at which 1,129 died. And the fallout from the accident has resulted in much more than a piece of investigative journalism. More than 100 retailers have signed agreements promising to pay millions to improve safety. And garment workers have begun organizing for better rights. According to the Toronto Star, there are now 50 workers' unions for the country's 5,000 factories.

For more of Aulakh's series click here.

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Shawn Egan

I go to work everyday, and I listen to how unfair management is and how unfair upper management is. Then I see these stories of REAL hardship and REAL issue plaguing workers, I find myself thinking what on earth do I have to complain about and the employee's at work. All I can think is that we have NOTHING to complain about where I work. This is true hardship.

December 28 2013 at 3:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This information just brings to light how good we had it as kids! I mean sure you know this kind of stuff actually happens but you dont really stop to think or process it and think about until you read something like this. I remember how my brothers would always whine about how my parents and I had cell phones and they didnt because they were to young, or they'd yell and throw tantrums about small things like not having a flatscreen tv like we did, he should have been glad he didnt have to work a 9 years old.

October 17 2013 at 11:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Not much different than working at Lowes

October 15 2013 at 11:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it\'s good for them. I worked for my dad at a very young age. I earned my own money and was proud of it. When that\'s what you\'re used to, hothing wrong with that. Plus it gives them direction and something to do. At ten, I recall working at school, coming home and working late hours with my family. It kept me out of trouble. I do feel sorry that the girls in that country don\'t have nice things like girls in America, but is that a bad thing? When I look around at what\'s happening around me in our country, I think those girls working in the sweat shops most likely have it together more than some of the girls do here. Just my opinion.

October 15 2013 at 10:54 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to pljmk's comment

Your way of rationalization is the problem, hand in hand with your blissful ignorance. I wanted to puke reading your comment. The girls over there in Bangladesh do not have the luxury of even being children. They are forced to work their childhood away, they are sent to go work in sweatshops, brothels amongst many other horrors. Do not ignorantly compare your childhood to that of these children.

October 17 2013 at 6:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So Sad they work to make some one there rich & some one here rich & their product leaves their country & their labor does not service the people of their country.

October 15 2013 at 8:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When I was in public elementary school I was taught about the evils of child labor and then was immediately sent door to door selling candy bars to make money for the school.

October 15 2013 at 6:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

toilets are holes in the ground there the bending helps get it out and you dont have to touch your butt on the same toilet the person before you did 5 minutes earlier.

October 15 2013 at 5:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is sad that young children are so exploited. On the other hand here in America children are spoiled, they never get told no about anything, spend their spare time playing video games and eating to the point of obeseity, ignore most authority figures and grow up thinking they are owed whatever their little hearts desire. Finally when they commit a crime the judge surely tells them NO with a stint in jail where they learn to be hard and go out and commit even more crimes. It's the parents fault that kids are they way they are these days. They should have discipline, chores and responsibilities, punishment when they are insolent and disrespective of their elders and authority figures and be taught how to become a productive members of society, instead of criminals, deadbeat dads and moochers off the system.

October 15 2013 at 4:41 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Oh, but I love my $6 shirts! The US is such a sheltered country that until you go to a country like this, there is no real way to understand it. Yet everyone in the US is loves to buy designer clothes, purses and shoes. I remember being in Asia in 1996 and watching the same factory making cheap clothes right next to the "name brand" stuff that costs 5 to 10 times as much. But since dumb people are willing to pay more for a name on their clothes, companies make tons of profit as it costs them the same to make the store brand stuff as it does the name brand stuff. We sit here and chastise the companies for the conditions, but without the demand the U.S. has for cheap labor and low prices the companies wouldn't exist.

October 15 2013 at 3:21 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

mayvbe good for less crime keeps kids out of trouble on street . keep kids busy then money saving when get older get extra money for can affort living expense. but i know that is 50 / 50 right or wrong for under age ??

October 15 2013 at 3:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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