Forget sweatshops; what can factories do for women?

Paula Williamson evaluates the opportunities that factories in Bangladesh provide for women. She argues that factories are providing women opportunities. However, there are still restrictions which inhibit access.

The Asian factory is frequently equated with worker exploitation, particularly the exploitation of vulnerable groups such as women and children. A notable example of this has been the coverage of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster where a Bangladeshi garment factory producing goods for high street brands in the west collapsed and killed over a thousand workers. Coverage led to wider discussions of unsafe worker conditions, worker rights, and consumer culpability.

The high level of negative association of factories with “sweat shops” as well as academic and practitioner interest in informal economies have encouraged interest into projects exploring home based income generation and entrepreneurship and what it can do for women.

However, when looking at employment from a development perspective, there is also a compelling case that links the factory floor, rather than home based work, to positive social outcomes. Researchers like Naila Kabeer from LSE’s Gender Institute, argue that formal employment outside the home has better development outcomes than home based employment for women in Bangladesh, and other developing countries as well.

In fact, looking at Bangladesh, the growth of the export orientated economy and labour intensive garment sector in the 1980s have been two of the most significant forces in empowering Bangaldeshi women. Not only has employment translated into more financial independence and decision making power for women, the allure of a wage has challenged some of the restrictions that exist on women’s mobility and participation in the public domain. In fact, the Bangaldeshi Government’s Sixth Five Year Plan (2011-2015) focuses on economic access as the priority means to achieve women’s advancement and rights. Other organisations like UNIFEM and UNSECO follow a similar line of thought in their work.


Jankie / Creative Commons License

Jankie / Creative Commons License


As well as being particularly good at creating large scale job opportunities, there are a number of reasons why labour intensive industries that favour formal, group organised labour, such as factory floors, can be a powerful force in women’s empowerment.

Vulnerable women also tend to do better when they work as part of a group. A good example of this is the microfinance movement that was born with Dr Yunus’ Grameen Bank in 1983. Grameen Bank stipulates that women borrow as part of a group and have access to formal, and informal, support services through these groups. Evidence does suggest that development outcomes in Bangladesh are higher for women when borrowers join a support group or borrower’s network. A review of breast feeding programmes in low and middle income countries also suggests that peer support increases effect.

The workplace is a valuable platform for skill sharing, friendship building, and mutual support. Opportunities to build social ties outside of the natal and marital homes can be particularly precious in countries where women’s mobility is restricted, such as countries that practice the Purdah system of female seclusion. Working from home can isolate women and this has implications for on the job learning, autonomy outside the home, as well as social identity. Alternatively, working outside the home can give women a public identity that was previously illusive, as well as corresponding social status.

Of course, access to a social networks or social solidarity does not always translate into poverty reduction or empowerment. For example, indigenous groups in many Latin American countries are noted for their social solidarity but struggle to gain access to power and resources needed to assert themselves in the political, economic or social landscape. However, coming together as a group can make the vulnerable more visible to the civil society organisations which both campaign for and educate workers on their rights, as well as the regulators who police health and safety conditions.

Restrictions, of course, still exist within the factory for women. In Bangladesh’s garment industry there is a stark disproportion between the sex ratio of production line workers, 4 women to every 5 men, and supervisors, 1 woman to every 20 men. Moreover, having an inclusive human resource management policy does not negotiate the myriad of obstructions women face in getting into the workplace: mobility, domestic burdens, familial pressure to name but a few.

Here is where there lies real opportunity for the development sector to make in-roads into accessibility of employment for women. Skills investment into female workers, fighting bias against women supervisors, child care provision, safe transport to and from work are some suggestions.


Paula Williamson is currently reading a Masters at the LSE in Gender, Development and Globalisation.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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