The garment industry in Bangladesh – from a woman’s perspective

Women in a garment factory

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Most of us are aware when we shop in Primark or H&M that the cheap clothes are made thanks to workers in developing countries on extremely low wages. But what repercussions has the burgeoning garment industry in Bangladesh had on people’s lives? Marie Pettersson, who is coming to the end of a three-month research project in Dhaka, writes about the role of a woman in such a profession, drawing from her own experiences visiting garment factories.

Bangladesh’s garment exports – mainly to the US and Europe – make up nearly 80% of the country’s export income. The country has more than 4,000 factories employing between two and three million workers.

The industry currently employs 1.5 million workers, approximately 80 % of whom are women, many working in hazardous social conditions. It has been a major source of employment for rural migrant women in a country that has increasingly limited rural livelihood options, and where women migrants have been largely excluded from formal work in the cities.

Women workers offer cheap, and easily exploited, labour force that allows the Bangladeshi garment industry to compete in the global market. While studies have shown that women’s employment in Bangladesh’s export-oriented garment industry has narrowed the gender gap in many spheres including participation in labour force, social prestige, control over income and decision making, there remains widespread gender discrimination in wage rates and social working conditions.

On the one hand, the garment export industry has directly benefited women from the poorer section of the rural population through employment opportunities. This has reduced marginalization of women who were previously excluded from formal sector jobs.

Dhaka’s factory garment workers are enabled to contribute to their own and other family members’ basic needs. Remittances from garment workers also created redistribution from city to countryside and helped to raise the status of women in their families and communities. To some extent this has created a more visible significance of women as economic contributors to their families and have reduced social gendered pressures for them to marry early.  To some extent it has also reversed traditional gender norms of women’s sole responsibility for domestic work as their work in the garment factory has encouraged their husbands to share the burden.

However, these women are a source of exploited labour and work intensely for a period of time and then move on, only to be replaced by a continuous supply of young women from rural areas. The health risks of the low-skilled work and conflictions with married/family life tends to make the garment industry unsustainable for them over the long run.

In perhaps a clumsy way it could be said that women are employed in the export-oriented industries to exploit the comparative advantages of their disadvantages – such as the low price of their labour, their lower bargaining power, and their docility compared to male workers.

Studies indicate that garment workers, particularly female garment workers, generally are young (average age 19), unmarried, with little education or training (and thus little prospects of promotion), no prior work experience, of rural origin and from poor families. Thus their work will necessarily result in gender imbalances if precautionary measures are not undertaken.

Current statistics show that female line-operators can earn approximately 60 % of their fellow male line-operators’ salaries, as the men tend to have the advantage of being employed in more technically skilled jobs whereas women are stuck in low-skilled jobs due to their relatively low level of education and training.

Women in a garment factory

In turn, women suffer the worst from poor working conditions because they hold low-skilled jobs where occupational hazards are greater due to overcrowding, poor ventilation and inadequate fire-prevention measures. There are frequent cases of female workers being trapped in factories during extra hours at night where no supervisors are present and many die from unprevented fire accidents. Moreover, as opposed to male workers, women are mostly employed in assembly-line oriented factory work, they have to seek permission for breaks, which the male supervisors often deny and whose authority the female operators are generally reluctant to disobey.

The most detrimental, and most tabooised, social impact of women’s employment in the export-oriented garment industry of Bangladesh is sexual violence and abuse, which the female workers at the bottom of the assembly-line work-chains are a particular high-risk group. Dhaka Police reports have shown that whereas, female garment workers account for only two to three percent of the total population of women in the metropolitan area of Dhaka, whereas they account for 11 percent of rape cases. Besides the exploitative nature of their work, workplace and supervisors, this is partly due to their unsafe long commutes home to the poorer slum areas where they tend to reside. These rape cases make suicide rates among female garment factory workers shockingly high.

The purpose of the project my research team and I am coordinating here in Dhaka is to demonstrate that in order to successfully compete in the global apparel market, Bangladesh has to translate its comparative advantage of women’s cheap labor into sustainable competitive advantage. This will require skills-development, training, education and promotion of workers in the garment industry, notably to the disempowered female workers at the bottom.

We aim to encourage factory owners to let their female garment factory line workers join a training programme to become supervisors, which will then lead to their promotion, wage increase and reduced working hours – protecting both their labour rights and their socio-economic empowerment.

While this project seems like a very positive proposal, which should be regarded as harmless and only a minor intervention for factory owners, we have been met with much ressistance during factory visits in Dhaka so far and only have  a low number of 25 factories onboard. ‘Selling’ the project to these hot-shot bling-bling macho Directors has proven quite a challenge – and for me as a white female ‘salesman’ I have very little authority or say. As one Director shouted back at me: “if you train our female line-operators then they won’t obey the male chiefs in our factory anymore, and we won’t be able to control them  this would be anarchy!”


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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