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Two Sisters, A Small Room And The World Behind A T-Shirt

Dec 3, 2013
Originally published on December 3, 2013 6:39 pm

Part of the Planet Money T-shirt Project

This is the story of how the garment industry is transforming life in Bangladesh, and the story of two sisters who made the Planet Money T-shirt.

Shumi and Minu work six days a week operating sewing machines at Deluxe Fashions Ltd. in Chittagong, Bangladesh. They each make about $80 a month.

To get to the small room that the sisters share with Minu's husband, you squeeze between two buildings, make your way along the wall, and spill out into a little neighborhood of boxlike rooms, all crammed on top of each other. Their room is upstairs, under a tin roof.

There's no running water in their room, and no kitchen. There's a TV, which Minu bought with the money she earned sewing clothes. There's also the box the TV came in, which takes up scarce shelf space in the small room. Minu was so proud of her purchase, she couldn't bear to throw the box away. "I feel too good when I think about it," she says, with a quick smile.

In the past decade, millions of Bangladeshis have started working in the garment industry. Many of them are like Shumi and Minu: They grew up in villages where conditions are even worse than they are for factory workers in the city.

When Shumi and Minu were growing up, sometimes there wasn't enough food to eat. They had three younger sisters who all died before they were 7. Now, Shumi and Minu are able to send money home. It isn't much, but it makes a big difference in the village.

"Now, we can eat whatever we want," their mother says. Their parents have built a new house, made of brick, to replace their old, bamboo house. And their younger brother can stay in school.

The rise of factory jobs in Bangladesh has brought profound cultural changes to the country as well. You can see the shift in just the few years that separate Minu and Shumi.

Minu, the older sister, is in her mid-20s. (The sisters aren't sure of their exact ages.) She's cynical and chews tobacco wrapped in betel leaf.

Minu has a 7-year-old daughter who lives back in the village with her grandparents. "I miss her," Minu says through a translator. "If she were here now, I'd be putting little clips in her hair." But there's nobody to watch Minu's daughter while Minu is at work here in the city.

Shumi, who is about 19, is Minu's opposite. Where Minu is reserved, Shumi is bubbly. Where Minu is serious, Shumi smiles. She loves her makeup and spends time doing her hair. It's hard for her to get through a story without laughing.

Minu's father married her off when she was a teenager, following the local tradition. An unmarried daughter "becomes a big burden," her father told us. "I have to spend money on their food and lodging."

Minu and her husband fight a lot. He goes through her phone and accuses her of cheating with the men she works with. She's a little scared of him. "I'm not capable to forgive my parents," Minu says. "They just destroyed my life."

By the time Shumi was a teenager, the rules of life in Bangladesh were changing. Rather than get married off, Shumi dropped out of school to go work with her sister in a factory.

Shumi's personal life is nothing like Minu's. Shumi has her own savings account. She has a boyfriend. Back in the village, her family would never let her talk to a boy who wasn't a relative. But here on her own, she takes rickshaw rides with her boyfriend. They hold hands; he tells her he loves her.

And, Shumi says, she won't consent to an arranged marriage like her sister's. "If I marry someone, then it should be my boyfriend," she says.

This is the world behind our T-shirt: three people in a small room dreaming of a better life. But for Minu and Shumi, this little room with the TV may be as far as they get. There aren't many jobs outside the garment industry, especially for women who dropped out of school.

Minu's dreams now are for her daughter. She's hopeful that her daughter can stay in school. She dreams that when her daughter grows up, there will be all kinds of jobs in Bangladesh. Maybe her daughter could work in an office, she says, or a bank — but not in a garment factory.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

All this week, our Planet Money Team is following the creation of a T-shirt it commissioned, from cotton fields in the U.S. to yarn spinners in Indonesia. And today we go to Bangladesh. It's been in the news this year for its clothing industry. In April, a factory there collapsed killing more than 1,000 workers. Over the last few months, huge protests have engulfed the capital, workers on strike demanding higher wages.

More and more, American clothing is manufactured in Bangladesh, and that includes Planet Money's men's T-shirt. Caitlin Kenny and Zoe Chace traveled to the factory there where the shirt was put together. Their assignment: To find out what life is like for the workers who made it.

CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: This is the story about how this one industry, the garment industry, is radically transforming things in Bangladesh. It's also the story of two sisters, Shumi and Minu, who worked on the Planet Money T-shirt.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: When we pull out the shirt, Minu, the older one, jumps and points, shows us exactly what they did using English words.

MINU: Side seam, (unintelligible).

CHACE: Minu is the older one. She's in her mid 20's. She's cynical, a fast talker, chews tobacco wrapped in betel leaf. She has a seven-year-old daughter who lives back in the village with her grandparents.

MINU: (Foreign language spoken)

CHACE: They miss her, she says. If she were here now, I'd be putting little clips in her hair. But there's nobody to watch her daughter while she's at work here in the city.

KENNEY: Shumi, the younger sister, is 19 years old. Where Minu is reserved, Shumi is bubbly. Where Minu is serious, Shumi is smiling. She loves her makeup, spends a lot of time doing her hair, and it's hard for her to get through any story without laughing.

SHUMI: (Foreign language spoken)


KENNEY: Today at work, she says, she and her friends were throwing clothes at each other. It was so funny.


KENNEY: Shumi and Minu work six days a week at Deluxe Fashions Limited in Chittagong, Bangladesh. This is the factory where our T-shirt was made. They operate sewing machines. And this is one of the better factories here in Bangladesh. It's got fans and fire exits. They sisters feel safe here, they say. They don't worry about a factory collapse, like the one at Rana Plaza.

CHACE: They each make about $80 a month - not bad for Bangladesh. Bangladesh's garment workers are the lowest paid in the world for this type of work. The sisters live in this little room. It's a concrete block - one window, tin roof. They share this room with Minu's husband. Minu and her husband usually sleep on the floor. Shumi, the younger sister, gets the bed. They pull a curtain between them for privacy.

KENNEY: Shumi bathes in a tiny stall in the hallway. She dumps buckets of cold water over herself.

CHACE: Minu cooks over two tiny gas burners...


CHACE: ...shared with their neighbors, which serves as a kitchen.

MINU: (Foreign language spoken)

CHACE: Ooh...


CHACE: ...a bunch of vegetables bubbling up.

MINU: Yeah.

CHACE: Vegetables and rice, tonight's dinner, tomorrow's breakfast and lunch - one dish, three meals in a row for both of them.

KENNEY: This is the world behind our T-shirts, behind lots of our clothes; very low wages, a tiny concrete room shared by three people.

There are over four million Shumis and Minus in Bangladesh working in the garment industry. The majority are women. To understand what's driven them to move to crowded cities where they work long days for very little money, it helps to understand where Shumi and Minu and the millions like them came from.

CHACE: Back in the village where Shumi and Minu grew up, their mom cooks lunch in the backroom. The difference between her life and her daughters' lives is very clear. No gas burners here. It's a fire pit made from mud. There're holes underneath to stick branches into, the room fills with smoke when she cooks.

KENNEY: Lots of Bangladesh's garment workers grew up cooking like this, with sticks instead of gas. Outside Shumi and Minu's parents' house, there's this pond. It's the bathtub, the dishwasher, the laundromat.

ABDUL JABAR: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEY: You're the father of Shumi and Minu.

JABAR: Mm-hmm.

KENNEY: This is Shumi and Minu's father, Abdul Jabar(ph). Their father used to be the only one in the family making any money. And he didn't make enough. The consequences were horrible.

JABAR: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEY: Three of his daughters died before they reached age seven. They were eating dirt. They got sick and their father couldn't afford to take them to the doctor.

JABAR: (Through translator) Still remember them at times and feel bad because my daughters, my kids. It fills emptiness in our family.

KENNEY: What Shumi remembers about this time is not having enough to eat.

SHUMI: (Through translator) We eat three times. But sometimes, our parents are not eating because the lack of food. They just give their food to us, because we are little.

KENNEY: If I ask you to close your eyes and picture what it was like when you were growing up, you know, what do you see? What do you feel?

SHUMI: (Through translator) Oh, yes.

KENNEY: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you cry.

CHACE: Now that the sisters work in the garment industry things have really changed for this family. Shumi and Minu send money back to the village, so does another sister who works at a different garment factory in the city. And you can see the impact right here in the kitchen.

The stove is the same as what they had growing up. But what's inside the pot is different.

KENNEY: What is it?

SHUMI: Murgi(ph).

CHACE: Murgi.


CHACE: Back before the sisters made money, their family rarely ate meat. Now their holiday bonuses pay for all the chicken and fish they want. Factory money has paid for a new house for Shumi and Minu's parents. It's brick instead of bamboo. This money keeps their younger brother in school.

KENNEY: And for millions of young women like Shumi and Minu, garment industry jobs have transformed their lives in other ways, as well. And this transformation has been so rapid you can see the difference even inside one generation of this family.

CHACE: For Minu, the older sister, her life looks much more like the lives of the women before her. When Minu became a teenager, her father began to worry about getting her married.

JABAR: (Through translator) In Bangladesh, it's a burden to have girls not get married. It's a big burden for me.

KENNEY: Why is it a burden to have daughters in the house?

JABAR: (Through translator) Because when they grow up, I have to spend money on their fooding, lodging. It becomes a big burden. So if they marry, she will go to another boy's house.

(Through translator) For centuries, we are seeing this. Like my forefathers also got their daughters married. This is the rule of this country, Bangladeshi rule. They have to get married.

KENNEY: Marrying Minu off meant she became her husband's burden, not her father's. And Minu's family thought the man they chose for their daughter had money. He paid for the wedding - that was a huge relief. But Minu's parents were wrong. The man they chose didn't have much money.

CHACE: So Minu took a job in the garment industry. And when she thinks back on it, she says she was just a kid back then. If she knew then what she knows now, she would have fought this choice that her parents made for her.

MINU: (Through translator) If I had the mental situation that time, like now, then I'm not getting married with him.

CHACE: Minu and her husband, they fight a lot. He gets jealous. He goes through her phone, accusing her of cheating with the men she works with.

So are you mad that your parents forced you to do this?

MINU: (Foreign language spoken)


MINU: I am not capable to forgive my parents because they just destroyed my life.

CHACE: Minu says that's why I never go home to visit - I can't forgive them. Her sister says Minu has a hard heart.

KENNEY: Minu had no choice. She had to marry a man chosen by her parents. But by the time her younger sister, Shumi, was marrying age the rules were changing in Bangladesh. When Shumi was 15, there was another path. Another way of bringing money into your family that didn't involve marrying a man you hardly knew.

By the time Shumi was in her early teens, there were over two and a half million people working in the garment industry; the majority of them women. So Shumi decided to dropped out of school after 7th grade to go work at her big sister's factory and make some money. The fact that Shumi's young, unmarried and with a garment worker's salary means that her personal life looks nothing like Minu's. Shumi has her own bank account. She's saving up for something special, something that shows the control that she now has over her own life.

SHUMI: I just save the money if I need it for my marriage and then I use the money for my marriage.

KENNEY: So I got to ask. Do you have a groom in mind? Yes?


KENNEY: What's his name? Shumi is blushing and laughing. She won't tell me his name. They work together. Is it a secret? Is it a secret romance?

CHACE: He would die (unintelligible)

KENNEY: Oh. Forbidden romance, very intriguing. Did you talk to him tonight? It's secret because he's Hindu and Shumi is Muslim. Back in the village, her father would never let her talk to a body who wasn't a relative, let alone a Hindu. But here in the city, she and her boyfriend take rickshaw rides together. He buys her jewelry.

They hold hands. He tells her he loves her.

CHACE: Minu, her older sister, she does not approve of Shumi's relationship. He's Hindu. That's a big problem for her. But Minu says when her own daughter grows up, she should make her own choice about who to marry.

KENNEY: This is the world behind our T-shirt, two sisters in a little room dreaming of a better life. If not for themselves, then for their children. And this life, by most Western standards, seems pretty wretched.

CHACE: There is not much room here for something to go wrong. In this family, if one sister, for some reason, couldn't work, they could get close to being hungry again, like they were before the sisters went to work in the factory. But here in Bangladesh, for these sisters, their life in the city is a big step up.

MINU: (Speaking foreign language)

CHACE: Back in the city, Minu gives us a tour of their room. I ask, what's your favorite thing in here.

MINU: (Speaking foreign language)

SHUMI: (Unintelligible) is all of my favorites because all of things I buy with my salary.

CHACE: OK. There is this one thing, though, that is this daily reminder of how far she's come from life in the village, the TV. She's still got the box that it came in. It's displayed on the shelf.

MINU: (Speaking foreign language)

SHUMI: I think two (unintelligible) now because this is - I bought this TV with my salary and when I was free, I just watching TV and think too good, too good.

KENNEY: But for Minu and for Shumi, her younger sister, this little room with the TV, this may be as far as they get. There aren't many other jobs here in Bangladesh, especially for women like them who dropped out of school.

CHACE: Minu's dreams are now for her daughter. She's hopeful that her daughter can stay in school, have lots of choices that she didn't have. Minu dreams that when her daughter grows up, they'll be all kinds of jobs in Bangladesh. She could work in an office or a bank, but not one of the garment factories. I'm Zoe Chace.

KENNEY: I'm Caitlin Kenney, NPR News.

BLOCK: Planet Money sent cameras home with the workers who made the Planet Money T-shirts. You can tour their apartments and villages at NPR.org/shirt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.