On the outskirts of Dhaka you will find hundreds of small brick factories.
The majority of these factories are considered illegal by the Bangladeshi government because the chimney stacks are too low and because they still use coal as their main fuel. Burning wood in kilns has also been illegal since 1989, but nearly two million tons of firewood are burned in ovens annually. The toxic fumes that these countless factory sites emit cause almost half of all the air pollution in the city.
Beside each factory are the makeshift villages or camps, where the workers live. Whole families are forced to labour for twelve hours a day, without rights and with a salary that barely allows them to survive.
The workers rise before dawn, heading up to the furnace in the half darkness. At 9 o’clock they are permitted to take a half hour break from their work. Most return quickly to their homes, wake up their youngest children who still are sleeping, and prepare breakfast for their families.
It is then back to work until 2 o’clock, when they may take another half hour break for lunch. Below you see Imran Uddin, 24 years old, a few minutes before a tropical storm hit the factory site where he was working with his brothers. None of the workers stopped during the storm.
Most of the workers in the furnace are families, including the elderly and also their children, who will begin to work alongside their parents when they are around six years old. The children’s pay is equal to that of adults, and is based on the amount of bricks transported daily. Younger children will spend the day wandering in the camps or around the furnace.
The work day only ends as darkness falls, when the workers will head to the nearest lake or river to wash the grime and dust from their faces and clothes. Returning to their homes, they prepare dinner and fall into an exhausted sleep. It is very rare for a home to have electricity. I was surprised to find that their days were marked only by the rhythm of work, no time even for prayer. They work six and a half days each week.
Most of the workers who we talked with were friendly, despite their fatigue and tiredness, and were glad to speak with someone. They also offered us their hospitality, as best they could, even though some of them told us that they felt ashamed of the conditions they lived in.
Sometimes we spoke with someone who was fearful. Some of the workers were afraid that if the boss knew they had talked to us, they might lose their job. In general, the workers were preoccupied with maintaining a relentless pace of bricks being loaded onto their heads or into the carts.
One of the young men we met, Shakir Kander, was 16 years old. Day in, day out, Shakir shovelled the dusty coal to fuel the hungry brick-baking furnace, from six o’clock in the morning until nightfall.
As with all the other workers, Shakir is allowed only half a day of rest each week. Also below you see a boatman crossing the Bouriganga river, which is considered among the top three most polluted rivers in the world. The many waterways surrounding Dhaka are essential for the transport of materials that are be used in the manufacture of bricks.
Above you see Shamina, thirteen years old, sleeping on the back of her bicycle — used for transporting bricks — during her short lunch break. During my time in Bangladesh, I visited perhaps thirty factories in two months, and met many individuals like Shamina. When embarking on this project, I believed that it was crucial to spend several days at each factory, so that I might more thoroughly capture their moments of everyday life outside of work. Sadly, factory after factory, it became apparent that the daily free time I had imagined for the workers, simply did not exist. Their schedule did not even permit them time to pray before sunrise, and days seemed to pass with an ineluctable cyclicality.
The sun beat down from above, the sweltering furnaces were burned constantly, and the air was always filled with dust and smoke.
I went away upset, with a bitter taste in my mouth. Away from these hellish workplaces, I gratefully breathed great gulps of fresh air, and yet the fate of the workers and their children would remain unchanged.
It was after reading author Kevin Bales’ powerful works on modern slavery and other similar studies, that I felt compelled to move to Bangladesh to tell this story. When I first arrived into Dhaka’s industrial area, and saw the forest of factory chimneys engulfed by thick black smoke, I knew that I had made the right decision. I had to document this. I had to share it with as many people as I could. And so I began.
In the end, what has stayed with me most about these factories, is our remarkable human capacity to somehow find the will to adapt and survive in adverse circumstances, whether environmental, social or economic. Living alongside the workers was, in its own way, a privilege, as I tried to understand and document the depth and truth of their lives.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Raffaele is a documentary photographer focusing on social, environmental, and anthropological issues.