Alif’s life story

My name is Alif*, and I am 17 years old. I live with my family in Hazaribagh. There are only three of us at home – my mother, father and me. 

My life has been fine over the past five years. My childhood was very difficult because all I did was work. I couldn’t play at the time when I should have been playing. When I was little, our household was impoverished, and I couldn’t study due to this. Now I am doing well, but it would have been great if I could have had the opportunity to study and play.  

I’ve been working for 10 years now (since I was six). For eight or nine years I’ve worked on hand gloves. We had our own factory at that time, which my brother ran. Although I didn’t work seriously then and only worked a little bit, I didn’t study because I was working. I wasn’t paid for working at my brother’s factory. But even if I didn’t work properly the entire month, I had to work for at least 15 to 22 days. My parents fed me, and my brother paid me a little bit. My parents told me to work in order to learn. I didn’t understand any of that. I worked at my brother’s factory for around two and a half years. I used to draw on the fabric with a pen and cut the fabric for the gloves with scissors. The fabric was then sewn, and I used to clip the threads afterwards. That business doesn’t exist anymore. My brother has gone to our village and is currently working as a driver. I heard that he drives a pick-up truck.  

I joined my current workplace when I was around ten years old. It’s a small local factory. When I started, I had to sprinkle water over the leather for milling. My first salary was Tk. 600 ($5.50 USD) and I’d work from 9 am to 9 pm. Initially, my income was low. We don’t face as much hardship now because my salary is a little higher. My salary is now Tk. 8,000 ($73 USD) per month. I am paid monthly, not on piece-rate. Currently, I work as a machine operator. I make hand gloves with good quality local leather using an (industrial sewing) machine. I haven’t learnt to do any other tasks yet, but I will have to. The rate is higher for hand gloves made with dyed leather. The same machine is used for that, but the leather is different. You can earn Tk. 13,000 ($120 USD) per month for that. The leather that I work with now is local and not dyed. The rate for a pair of dyed gloves is Tk. 40-45 (c. $0.50 USD), while the rate for a pair of local gloves is Tk. 15-20 (c. $0.20 USD). 

At first, I worked on milling, dyeing and drying leather. I would go and get dyes, oil and some chemicals for softening the leather. We had to do everything ourselves, but the factory owner paid all the expenses. The leather we work with is local. Leather which is dyed is sold abroad and locally. The dyes have to be mixed and dried. I have to do everything myself.  

I was first enrolled at school when I was nine and studied for a year or so. One day, twenty people visited the rented house we were living in and took me to school with them. They told me to get enrolled in school. At that time, I studied as well as worked.  We didn’t have to pay any school fees. Only Tk. 50 ($0.50 USD) had to be paid for the exam fee two to three times per year. I didn’t like studying back then; I didn’t understand much. Many people told me to study instead of working, but I didn’t understand much back then. While working, I used to be around people the same age as me. I liked being around them all day so that’s why I quit studying. I also had a problem with my ribs because they are curved. The doctor said that my ribs would become normal if I gained some weight and I don’t have that problem anymore. But I used to have pain in my chest – it ached when I breathed. I had this problem when I attended school for about a year. I didn’t get a lot of medical treatment for my chest pain. I used to stay in bed all the time. Usually, I feel better after taking medicine. I visited doctors. I suffered for four or five months. My family was impoverished back then, so we couldn’t spend much on my treatment – only Tk. 100 to 1,500 ($1-14 USD) was spent.  

I skipped many days of school due to this problem and then my name was cut off from our school register. I never got the opportunity of getting enrolled again. I wanted to return to school, but when I heard that my name had been cut off, I didn’t feel like going there anymore. When I did return after recovering from my illness, I was asked where I had been all this time. They told me to return my books as they had cut my name from the register. Even though I told them that I had skipped school due to chest pain, they didn’t believe me and assumed it was because I was working. I wanted to continue studying, but I didn’t try to enroll at another school. I was too old for school anyway and didn’t get the opportunity to study at a different school. I think I was 10 or 11 years old at that time. My parents were impoverished as well. So, that’s why I didn’t go to school. 

Seven years ago, my father was sick – he was paralyzed and bedridden for five to six months. My mother worked but she received a low salary. Our household relied only on my income at that time and that was extremely difficult. Back then, I earned Tk. 1,200 ($11 USD) and my mother earned Tk. 3,500 ($32 USD) and we had to manage on that. My brother didn’t give us any money at that time. Our rent was Tk. 2,000 ($18 USD) and we had Tk. 3,000 ($28 USD) for food. We mostly ate vegetables and couldn’t eat fish or meat often. If we ate well one day, we had to skimp on our meals the next day. There were days when we didn’t have any food at home, but we never asked anyone for help. We lived in extreme poverty for seven months. Then my father started recovering slowly and we became less impoverished.  

We had to sell off land in our village to get treatment for my father. We sold 3 of our 8 decimals of land. I don’t know how much money the land was sold for – I was little back then and didn’t understand much. He was treated in our village, and we stayed there for a month before my father, and I came to Dhaka. Because my father was sick my education was not a priority at that time. It was necessary for me to earn money. I didn’t think about the positive effects of education back then, I just didn’t think about it. Instead, I thought that if I worked instead of studying, we would have some peace. Now, looking back, I think it would’ve been better if I had studied, because more or less all of my friends studied. A friend of mine studies in class 8 and another one studies in class 5, while I stopped studying in class 1. I didn’t study much which is why I feel sad. I can only write my name, nothing else. 

We still have 5 decimals of land, which includes the land on which our house is located. My father isn’t sick anymore, but when he drives for one day, he can’t drive again for two or three days. He has gotten old – he’s 64 years old and isn’t capable of physical exertion. Now my father earns Tk. 3,000 to 4,000 ($28 – 37 USD) per month. My mother earns Tk. 7,000 ($65 USD) per month, and she works in only one household. She goes there at 10 am and returns in the evening or at night. 

Our household doesn’t incur many expenses right now. I will open a monthly deposit account in January so that I can save Tk. 5,000 ($46 USD) per month. We had a loan that was taken out from somewhere in our village when we were severely impoverished. My father had quit driving and borrowed money to set up a shop selling tea and betel leaves, but then he incurred losses. Setting up the shop and buying goods for resale had cost around Tk. 60,000 to 70,000 ($550-650) and so he borrowed Tk. 40,000 to 50,000. ($370-460). The loan had to be repaid in installments over two years. Four months ago, it was completely repaid. We had to pay monthly installments of Tk. 4,000 ($37).  

Personally, I want to set up a small hand glove factory. I need Tk. 50,000 ($460) for that.  

My parents moved to Dhaka a long time back. I was one year old when we came to Dhaka. We used to go hungry in our village, we were so impoverished that’s we had to get by without eating. Then my parents took the decision to come to Dhaka. At first, I worked at my brother’s factory. My current workplace is the second factory I’ve worked at. This factory is located in the same building where we used to live in a rental. I used to work there and learnt to do the job. I learnt to operate a machine over six to seven years. Now I work with a machine and am still working at the same factory. I started working there for Tk. 600 ($5.50) per month but as I learnt to do the job overtime, my salary was raised to Tk. 8,000 ($74). The company is very good, and the owner knows us well. Currently, I work there alone. There is no helper. The factory owner does the job of a helper. 

I took the decision to begin work by myself. My parents didn’t encourage me to study, that’s why I didn’t study. They wanted me to work. Now, I sew for a living. I haven’t done milling since two or three years ago. Back when I did milling, my salary was Tk. 4,000 ($37). I used to dry leather as well at that time. Now I have to work six days a week from 9 am to 9 pm. On Fridays, I have to work half the day till 1 am. Initially, I didn’t mind working 12 hours a day, but I don’t like it anymore. The older I am getting, the more I am losing interest in my work. Now I feel like it would’ve been better if my working hours were 9 am to 5 pm. I feel bad about not being able to go out and spend time with friends. I can’t spend time with my family. Because I work with a machine, my job doesn’t require any physical exertion, so I don’t feel bad. I would’ve felt bad if I had to work downstairs, which is harder. 

I used to clip threads from products after the machine operators had sewn them or cut fabric with a machine. That helped my employer. The company never said anything to us about going to school, and we didn’t think about it either. There are probably benefits of hiring children. There are other hand glove factories over here, where some workers are even younger than me. Higher salaries are paid to those who are older. For example, my salary has been raised to Tk. 8,000 over time, but if an older man were hired in my place, he would be paid a salary of Tk. 13,000-16,000 ($120-150). Children can be made to work more on lower salaries compared to adults, so, it’s more profitable to hire them. Children don’t understand much: they work fast when they are told to whilst adults work at their own pace. When adults are told to work fast, they answer back, but children don’t because they’re afraid of being sworn at. 

Initially, I had to work with chemicals. I had to take the leather to the roof of the factory for drying. The roof top was on the second floor. It takes around 20 minutes for the leather to dry, and 10 to 15 minutes to bring it down again. I had to go and check on the progress of the drying sometimes. Since I was interested in working, the job didn’t seem too painful to me. I never slipped on the stairs while carrying the leather up and down. After the leather had dried, I used to do milling with my feet. Working under the sun was difficult but I didn’t have to carry heavy loads because the company gave me small amounts of goods to carry. The company is good and knows us well. 

There were risks involved in working with sharp tools; I cut my hands multiple times. I don’t remember how many times I cut my hands. My hands used to have marks on them from holding the scissors. I don’t have those marks anymore. The bottom of my feet went red from the milling work. My feet used to ache from stepping on the leather. The skin on my feet peeled off during that time. I had to step on leather for a long time as it was dry. It took me more than 30 minutes to finish milling a batch of 20 pairs of goods. I had to mill 100 pairs in total. It took even longer when the leather was thick. The skin on my feet used to shed three or four times a month. I got used to it, so it didn’t happen so much. 

Other than that, I used to do pasting. At first, I hated the smell, but I got used to working with glue on my hands and didn’t mind the smell afterwards. I hated it when there were too many people around. Four to five people used to work in a room. Two to three times a month, the factory smells of gases. The gas comes from coasting – when the machines are turned on, their motors release gas. These days machines don’t make a lot of noise like they used to. My workplace gets hot, but I’ve gotten used to it. There are two stoves at each of the two sides of my workplace. 

The factory owner is usually good. Perhaps I couldn’t follow his instructions at times; that’s why he used to get angry. I used to get angry too, but I used to calm down after a while. 

In the future, I want to learn to drive a car. I want to make hand gloves and drive a car as well. I have wanted to drive a car since I was a child. I like driving even though I have never sat in a driver’s seat. One of my friends learnt to drive and has been working as a driver for 14 years. I want to learn driving from him. He earns Tk. 16,000 to 18,000 ($150 to $165) per month.  

After getting permission from my parents, I keep Tk. 200-300 (less than $3) from my salary as pocket money. It would be good if I could spend some time with my friends. You can do good things with your friends, like cleaning trash from the streets. When there are five or six people, we can clean up the trash from the streets. When there are 10 to 12 people, we can play football. But where’s the time for that? I don’t like working anymore. My body can’t take it. 

I have some work experience for the type of business I want to set up. If I work for a little longer, I can learn more and can make connections with the buyers of hand gloves. I need to gain experience. I know where goods are purchased from. Cow leather is needed to make hand gloves. The leather is marked using a pattern, then it is cut with scissors in line with the marking. The gloves are then sewn, and the process is complete. 

We didn’t face any hardship when the Covid-19 pandemic started. My mother’s work stopped but she was still paid. When the pandemic came about, she was paid Tk. 5,000 taka (2,000 less than usual). This went on for two months before she started working again. My father couldn’t go out back then. We weren’t living in poverty, and we didn’t face the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. We didn’t have to take any loan and we were able to pay rent, so we didn’t face any problems. 

Sometimes, I feel like it would’ve been better if my work ended at 7 pm. I am given 1 hour off for lunch every day and go home to eat.

*All names have been changed 

November 6, 2023
Article type:
November 2023