Two Sisters, A Small Room And The World Behind A T-Shirt
NPR’s Planet Money decided to sell a T-shirt. You can see the shirt above, with the squirrel on it.
But instead of just buying any old shirt, the Planet Money team tracked the production of the clothing from growing the cotton to delivering them to your door.
They also spent time with the people in Bangladesh who sewed the shirts. This is the story of two sisters — Shumi and Minu — who made Planet Money’s men’s T-shirt and the world they live in.
Shumi and Minu work six days a week operating sewing machines at Deluxe Fashions Ltd. in Chittagong, Bangladesh. They each make about $80 a month.
To get to the small room that the sisters share with Minu’s husband, you squeeze between two buildings, make your way along the wall, and spill out into a little neighborhood of boxlike rooms, all crammed on top of each other. Their room is upstairs, under a tin roof.
There’s no running water in their room, and no kitchen. There’s a TV, which Minu bought with the money she earned sewing clothes. There’s also the box the TV came in, which takes up scarce shelf space in the small room. Minu was so proud of her purchase, she couldn’t bear to throw the box away. “I feel too good when I think about it,” she says, with a quick smile.
In the past decade, millions of Bangladeshis have started working in the garment industry. Many of them are like Shumi and Minu: They grew up in villages where conditions are even worse than they are for factory workers in the city.
When Shumi and Minu were growing up, sometimes there wasn’t enough food to eat. They had three younger sisters who all died before they were 7. Now, Shumi and Minu are able to send money home. It isn’t much, but it makes a big difference in the village.
"Now, we can eat whatever we want," their mother says. Their parents have built a new house, made of brick, to replace their old, bamboo house. And their younger brother can stay in school.
The rise of factory jobs in Bangladesh has brought profound cultural changes to the country as well. You can see the shift in just the few years that separate Minu and Shumi.
Minu, the older sister, is in her mid-20s. (The sisters aren’t sure of their exact ages.) She’s cynical and chews tobacco wrapped in betel leaf.
Minu has a 7-year-old daughter who lives back in the village with her grandparents. “I miss her,” Minu says through a translator. “If she were here now, I’d be putting little clips in her hair.” But there’s nobody to watch Minu’s daughter while Minu is at work here in the city.
Shumi, who is about 19, is Minu’s opposite. Where Minu is reserved, Shumi is bubbly. Where Minu is serious, Shumi smiles. She loves her makeup and spends time doing her hair. It’s hard for her to get through a story without laughing.
Minu’s father married her off when she was a teenager, following the local tradition. An unmarried daughter “becomes a big burden,” her father told us. “I have to spend money on their food and lodging.”
Minu and her husband fight a lot. He goes through her phone and accuses her of cheating with the men she works with. She’s a little scared of him. “I’m not capable to forgive my parents,” Minu says. “They just destroyed my life.”
Top photo: Minu (left) and her younger sister Shumi worked on the Planet Money men’s T-shirt. (Kainaz Amaria/NPR)
Bottom photo: Planet Money’s women’s T-shirt. Learn how it was made.