When Rehana Parveen, 23, landed a job three years ago in a garment factory at Phulbaria - an hour's drive from Dhaka - she had dreams of a husband and a home echoing with the laughter of children. 'I got married but becoming a mother is out of the question. The unwritten rule in garment factories is: don't get pregnant - if you do, you will get sacked,' Ms Parveen lamented. She said that in the past year, 12 women workers at the clothing factory run by Biswas Group of Industries at Phulbaria have been fired for violating the management's policy. Sabaira Begum was on the payroll of Jhimuk Garments Company, on the outskirts of Dhaka. But she was thrown out when she had a baby. She had to wait for six long years before she got back the job which pays her 1,000 takas (HK$137) each month - considered a decent salary in impoverished Bangladesh. 'I have learned a lesson. I will never get pregnant again,' she said. 'And if I do, I will immediately have an abortion before I am booted out.' More than 1.5 million young women - comprising 80 per cent of the sector's total workforce - toil in Bangladesh's notorious garment sweat shops, where ready-made clothes ranging from shirts and trousers to golf caps are produced in the most inhuman working conditions for export to the United States, Britain, Canada and European Union nations. The cash-rich business, which thrives on cheap labour, is the country's biggest foreign exchange earner - 3,200 factories in the Dhaka, Chittagong, Tangi and Naraingunje regions earn as much as US$4 billion a year from exports to the West. But women workers - the industry's backbone - are paid a pittance. Wages range from 700 to 1,500 takas a month. Shrugging off Bangladesh's own labour laws and international human rights treaties, factory owners force them to slog for 70 to 90 hours a week, or 280 to 360 hours a month. 'Women are forbidden to have babies because employers want consistent productivity. Moreover, if the women remain childless, there is no question of granting paid maternity leave or arranging child-care facilities like creches for working mothers in factories as stipulated by law,' said Shireen Akhtar, who heads the non-governmental organisation Karmajibi Nari, or Working Woman. The majority of badly underpaid women are from the countryside where poverty is rampant. Most of them can barely sign their name and are unaware of their rights. Abortions are rampant because of the embargo on babies. Out of 52 factory workers who recently turned up at a health centre run by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities near Dhaka, 31 were found to be pregnant. But none of them returned for follow-up consultations and medical care. The inevitable conclusion, said Nasreen Sultana, medical officer at the centre, was that the 31 pregnant workers had abortions in one of the many illegal clinics to hold on to their jobs. The women's plight is often desperate. Not only are the women denied motherhood in contravention of all laws and paid meagre wages but they also face widespread sexual abuse and life-threatening safety lapses in the workplace. Sexual exploitation by a section of factory owners, male colleagues and local administrative officials is rampant. Rapes are common. There are reports of some employers even using female workers as a bait to entice overseas buyers. Qazi Muniruzzaman, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers' and Exporters' Association, said that abuse of women was a major problem in the country and the garment industry should not be singled out for attacks. Ms Akhtar said the factories had no emergency exits, inadequate toilet facilities, no drinking water and no weekly holidays. ''Sometimes it appears that workers are in a prison or forced-labour camp,' she said. Ms Akhtar said owners went scot-free because they were neither arrested nor prosecuted after recurring tragedies which were invariably forgotten after some financial compensation was paid to the victims' dependants. 'It's an uphill battle,' Ms Akhtar said. 'Nobody knows when the government will muster enough courage to catch the bull by the horn. Factory owners enjoy tremendous clout because of their wealth. And the administration doesn't care two hoots about what happens to their women slaves.'