Friday, May 24, 2013

Sisters of the Cloth

I am a seamstress. I hesitate to call myself a "designer" because I have yet to come up with many of my own designs.  But can I sew? Absolutely! I "borrowed" my Mother's sewing machine when I was about ten and never gave it back. That machine became my best friend. I would sew for hours in the summers, all night long. Nick Jr. was my constant companion during those sewing marathons. Mister Ed, Patti Duke and Gidget were my pals. I started by making baby dresses. My sister had a little girl so I was happily lost in a sea of lace, ribbon and bows. I made some of my prom dresses and lots of costumes for this and that.  

As I got older I continued to make things here and there and eventually I tried my hand at costume design for local theater. I enjoyed every minute of that experience except I could not keep up with the work and stress. I slaved for hours in my shop for weeks at a time, barely coming up for air. The payoff was getting to see my designs and handy work under the lights and beauty that is live theater. It was such a thrill and feeling of accomplishment on opening night. 

But sadly, that career did not pay much. I remember breaking down my hourly wage once and it was WAY below minimum wage. I decided never to do that math again. Even still, sewing is that thing I can't NOT do. I have spent hours at my machine, hunched over, sweating and sore in the back. Now that I am older I can only put in about three hours at the machine without my body screaming in pain. I have to take lots of breaks in order to keep myself in that position.

In Bangladesh the average garment worker stays at their machine for 8-12 hours a day, 7 days a week and earns between $38 to $60 per month. That means they are earning $.13 to $.20 per hour, which is slightly less then we pay our prison population. 

This amount will cover only their most basic needs. Most of the injured workers from Rana Plaza will have to go immediately back to work when they are released from the hospital. 

I cannot imagine being at my sewing machine for those long hours. My body would be in so much pain by the end of the day! Those long shifts must feel like torture. There is also no personal pay off for them. There is no opening night where they will see their hard work shown off to applause. They will continue to sit at their machines churning out garment after garment while we continue paying $10 to $20 for each piece. Eventually we tire of it, give it away, or leave it in our closet until it is forgotten.

Rozina Akter, 21, a sewing-machine operator who worked at the Phantom Apparels factory on the fourth floor of Rana Plaza:

"It's a hard job. At least I have a fan over my head and I can live in the city. I tried to open a tailoring shop back home, but I had to give it up... I didn't want to go to work that morning, but the supervisors said we'd be docked pay if we didn't go. Then the building owner turned up with some guys who threatened to beat us with sticks if we didn't start working … We went in and started working, but then the power went out and the whole building started to shake. I ran for the stairs. But after I ran down one flight, the roof crashed down around me. I fell and lost consciousness …"

It breaks my heart that my beloved sewing machine has become a weapon of mass destruction. This beautiful gadget that has brought me so much happiness and fulfillment has become the means by which thousands if not millions of human beings have become slaves and victims to the greed of capitalism. I can no longer sit at my machine without thinking of girls like Rozina, or 18-year-old, Amena Khatun, who worked on the building's second floor of Rana Plaza. Her father travelled to the site of the collapse the day it fell. He began searching for any sign of his beloved daughter. He was up every day at dawn to begin searching and would not stop until midnight. Amena was trying to make her own way in the world and did not want to depend on her brothers for support. He never found her. 

"There has been no help from officials. I am a poor man. I am illiterate. Who will help me?".

He attended the mass burial to say goodbye to his sweet girl. He will never get to honor her body with a traditional Bangladeshi burial. He will never know exactly how she died. All that remains of her life are memories.

I cannot stop thinking about these beautiful young girls, lives wasted so we can look good. I feel a solidarity with these women so strong that if I had the means I would go visit them, if only to tell them that somebody cares about them, that they have value and worth in the world, that I appreciate all that they have done for me. We are sisters of the cloth, literally. I weep for the loss of such beauty, such potential.

They have stopped searching for bodies in the wreckage of Rana Plaza. Today I burn a candle for Amena and the 1120 confirmed dead. 

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