Lamia Karim, associate head and associate professor in the Department of Anthropology addressed participants of the 2014 Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) Global Health Workshop hosted at National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan in September.
Karim led a special presentation on health systems entitled Learning to Labor: Community-Based Healthcare and Female Garment Labor in Bangladesh.
Her presentation was based on research assessing the healthcare needs of female garment
industry workers in Bangladesh, a small country in South Asia touted as the ‘cheapest” place to manufacture clothes. Bangladesh workers are paid the lowest wages in the world, while their labor is the source of a $20+ billion revenue stream for the country. The garment industry employs over 4 million young women—mostly poor migrants from rural to urban areas.
According to Karim, the garment industry has over 5,000 poorly-regulated factories in Bangladesh.
The collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza garment-factory building in the Savar District of Greater Dhaka Area on April 23, 2013, brought worldwide attention to the dire conditions and low wages under which poor women stitch clothes for major American and European labels.
“However, since the incident, companies and local authorities have focused attention on upgrading the safety standards in factories, not the environmental and health consequences of industrial work on the female labor force,” says Karim. “Based on preliminary research, I found that workers suffered from the
following health problems—chronic back pain from sitting for extended
periods of time, upper respiratory infections from cotton dust, and poor nutrition.”
Karim’s research explores the healthcare provided by a community-based organization known as Awaaj (Awareness) that runs an after-hours mobile clinic for garment workers.
Awaaj has developed an innovative model by bringing healthcare to the slums where the workers live allowing them to visit the clinic after work. Moreover, Awaaj is associated with a local trade union run by a former garment worker, and it uses the clinic as a pedagogical environment to train workers about environmental hazards and their rights.
Among the basic recommendations Professor Karim and others propose are the creation of an Integrated National Health Plan for garment workers, more mobile clinics, and reproductive healthcare clinics for women.