Only two months after giving birth to her first child, 20-year-old Roksana is already planning to return to her old job in a garments factory.
She started work there at the age of 16 but left while three months pregnant last September, without claiming her legal entitlement to four months of paid maternity leave.
“Pregnant workers are forced to leave work,” said Roksana, who has been married for two years.
“I have to climb stairs (and) stand in line for long hours. Such situations are created so workers leave their jobs during this period; no one will spare me in these places.”
Under section 45 of Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, pregnant women are entitled to 16 weeks of leave with full wages, to be taken either side of the due date.
Employers are legally bound to grant this period of leave, which can be taken twice while a worker remains in the job provided they have worked for their employer for at least six months.
In the garment industry – the biggest employer of women in the country – factory owners say they want to give maternity leave to workers, but claim the expectant mothers leave the job without making the request.
“We want to give them leave; so far no one has come to take it,” the managing director of Dewan Apparels, Mozammel Haque, said.
“As per the labour law, we give four months of leave with benefits, but workers willingly leave the job within two to three months of pregnancy. Those who work in the operating department do it more often because the market has greater need for them.”
The women say they are afraid to ask for their leave entitlements as the owners do not allow them to, even though it is mentioned in the labour law.
The result of the impasse is that the worker has to leave their job a few months into their pregnancy, and must rejoin the production line shortly after giving birth.
This correspondent visited garment factories in the capital and observed firsthand the inhuman behaviour and flagrant disregard of labour laws by owners.
One garment worker and resident of Mirpur, Aklima, said she has been staying at home after leaving her job seven months into her pregnancy.
“At one point of a pregnancy, the pressure of factory work becomes unbearable, and those who make us work behave very badly, too,” she said. “There is no alternative but to leave the job so the child is not harmed, but we do not leave our job voluntarily.”
The general secretary of the Bangladesh Garments Workers Trade Union Centre, Jolly Talukder, said that in most cases, the factory owners do not want to give four months of paid benefits.
“The owners, who claim to give holidays, do not usually give workers the four months leave, which is two months before childbirth and two months after,” she said.
“Some of them give a few days off and some do not want to pay money. That no one has ever come asking for maternity leave proves what the actual scenario is.”
Jolly said the factory owners harass their pregnant workers in many ways.
“Sometimes workers are forced to quit their jobs to avoid harassment,” she said. “Can it be said they give up their jobs willingly? There are also examples of women who have sued for their benefits and won; even those who have not been involved with any labour organization.”
Dewan Apparels boss Mozammel Haque claimed expectant mothers were themselves taking advantage of the system.
“When they join a new workplace after eight months of leave, they get paid seven hundred taka more than their current wages. To avail this extra money, they leave the job without mentioning their pregnancy,” Mozammel said.
This article was first published on banglatribune.com