This research paper was an output of a much larger project called GlobalGRACE, which also works with people based in Cape Town, Rio in Brazil, in Chiapas in Mexico, and the Philippines. As an indication of GlobalGRACE’s scope, the projects ranged across working with LGBTQ identified young people through creative writing, performance, and poetry to talk about their lives and experiences in the Philippines, which is a place where being LGBTQ identified can be difficult, dangerous and challenging, to setting up the first ever sex workers theatre company in South Africa by working with a group of sex workers and an NGO called SWEAT in Cape Town with partners at the University of Cape Town.
As the Bangladesh part of the project, we’ve been working with a group of female construction workers. Working on a building site is perceived as very masculinised labour and against gendered norms, as it is elsewhere in the world, but it’s also seen as taboo for women to be seen doing this kind of heavy labour in a very visible public sphere.
There are a lot of health harms because they’re very limited safety precautions. Women are working without any kind of safety, equipment or training, where there are a lot of physical dangers (climbing on scaffolding and buildings). But in addition, there is a lot of sexual violence and abuse that goes on between the male workers, co-workers and the Sardars (the supervisors). There’s an expectation of exchange of sexual favours in return for being given permission to do the day’s labour. So, there’s considerable exploitation and abuse, which includes going to and from the places of work. These women are often subjected to sexual harassment and abuse, because they’re seen as loose women, as bodies out of place, that they shouldn’t be there, and that they don’t belong. Mainly, they’re seen as violating traditional gender roles.
The women that do this are often migrants from rural communities and are coming from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. They likely didn’t go to school for very many years at all, they didn’t leave with any recognised qualifications and there levels of literacy were unlikely very high. And this is an area of work that they can do, which doesn’t require any formal qualifications or entry level skills.
It does however favour the young, so there’s also issues of ageing, which is very relevant.
Most of these women that we worked with were the main (or sole) breadwinners for various reasons (lone parent, the male breadwinner can’t provide, or they are a second or third wife). So they faced various layers of socio-economic deprivation and stereotyped gender norms constraints. But they were very resilient and doing amazing work of maintaining the families in this difficult situation.
So the GlobalGRACE Bangladesh project focused on enhancing well-being, self-esteem and confidence using creative skills training. We’ve been working over the past three years having weekly day-long workshops with a core group of women construction workers.
They were provided with smart phones and credit, and were trained in mobile phone-based film and photography. As outputs, they then created a community festival and exhibition, photo books, and they’ve created virtual digital exhibitions of their work and their photography is beautiful.
They also, through this period of time, said that they wanted to do craft workshops. And we tried to make it as much led by the participants as possible, and we asked ‘what do you want to do?’ And so, a lot of the crafts chosen were influenced by traditional gender norms, but this is what they wanted to do, and felt that they had the sort of abilities to do – which included pottery, painting, paper crafts and embroidery. Which while not changing gender norms, it made them feel skilled and valued.
They were also trained in event planning and organisation. So over a year timeframe, we supported them to think about how to create a community festival and they decided everything from the location, to the food, to the order of the day. Which resulted in a successful event for over 150 people. And here they exhibited their photography and felt rightly very proud of their achievements. Their friends and family members and people from their communities were amazed and also proud of what they had achieved and the by the beauty of their photography. It was a really joyful day actually.
During this time, something that was unplanned was that they decided they wanted to create their own workers manifesto of rights for women construction workers. Through lots of discussion during the workshops they developed 14 demands, which we helped them to make that into posters and handouts. We’ve also been disseminating their manifesto of workers rights and demands through organisations, employers and policymakers and NGOs in both Bangladesh and beyond.
Before COVID hit, we managed to tour the exhibition of their photography to Kolkata, India, and to make links with female construction workers there, and talk to them about their experiences and there was such a lot of resonance between the rights and the demands of an experiences of women construction workers across those countries.
During COVID, the work on the construction sites stopped, and basic survival during this time of extreme crisis and loss of income became most pressing. Every time that we held a day-long workshops, the women were paid for a day’s labour because if they don’t work, they were not being paid. And during the pandemic, this group was then broadened to include other working class socioeconomically marginalised women. Through the project we were able to continue to support women and their families in ways we had not anticipated as were were of course not expecting a global pandemic.
During this time, the women decided amongst themselves that they wanted to think about transferable skills beyond the construction site, especially as we didn’t know how long the sites would be closed, and they needed an income. So we started talking with them about how else they could earn, what could be done to diversify their survival strategies. And they developed a social enterprise called Nityo Sokha, that we’ve helped them to set up using Facebook.
And through this Facebook page, they are able to sell products to the local area. They mostly can sell services, such as cleaning and care services, and sell food. But what they have introduced, which is completely unique in the Bangladeshi context (as far as we’re aware) is that they started their own delivery driver service as women, and they delivering the goods to the doorstep using rickshaws and bikes as modes of transport. And they’ve actually developed this really big social network of women across the city, and there are now over 2000 women involved.
Findings are based from participatory action research, that has taken place over three years with weekly contact and skill-building workshops aimed to increase well-being, held with the same small group of 16 female construction workers in Sylhet, Northern Bangladesh. These workers were a diverse age range from early 20s to their 50s, or 60s which is considered relatively elderly within this context. This project was then expanded to include a larger group of other marginalised female workers in Bangladesh.