Empowering Bangladesh’s female garment workers

The garment industry has powered Bangladesh’s economy and put more people to work than any other sector, especially women, in the last 40 years. But it has taken a heavy toll on women’s mental and physical welfare.

Workers at this garment factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh
Workers at a garment factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh. Women make up the overwhelming majority of the workforce in Bangladesh's garment industry. Image: Solidarity Center, CC BY 2.0

For four decades, the garment industry has powered Bangladesh’s economy and put more people to work than any other sector. Women in particular have benefited from this hiring boom, and today, a majority of the industry’s four million employees are female.

But while the textile trade has put money in women’s purses and challenged a patriarchal society to evolve, economic empowerment has not greatly improved gender equality and female wellbeing. On the contrary, women with jobs in Bangladesh’s largest industry are now imperiled on two fronts—at home and at work.

While much has been written about exploitation in the garment industry, there is a paucity of data on the health and safety implications for women in this sector. Our organisation, icddr,b (International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh), is working to change this. In a series of recent studies, we explored the health and welfare issues—both physical and emotional—faced by women who produce clothing that they will never be able to afford.

The women we spoke with shared markedly similar stories. Most were or had been married, are poorly educated, and migrated to cities from poverty-stricken households in Bangladesh to work and support their families. Most interviewees reported working at least 10 hours per day, every day. Many work overtime to meet their daily production quota of 100 shirts per hour. And, depending on their position, they spend the entirety of their shifts either standing (if they are quality inspectors), sitting (if they are machine operators), or moving (if they are factory-floor helpers).

But what makes our studies unique is the information we collected about what happens after work. And here, the data are even more striking.

For starters, most married female workers’ workdays don’t end when their shift at the factory does. Back at home, they are expected to cook, clean, and perform other household chores—work on top of work that leaves them exhausted and prone to illness. Pregnant women in particular suffer significant health problems, such as hypertension, owing to their brutal schedules. And yet most women, needing the income, continue working and hide their pregnancies as long as possible, out of fear that supervisors will fire them when they find out.

This also takes an emotional toll. Working mothers from rural villages report experiencing high levels of guilt, anxiety, and stress caused by being away from the children whom they often have to leave in their home village, because they cannot afford—in terms of time or money—to care for them in Dhaka.

Although activists and industry insiders recognise that attitudes and abusive practices toward female workers must change, there is currently no consensus about how to proceed.

Two out of five workers show suicidal tendencies. Yet the factory health-care systems that we have studied do not treat mental illness as a serious problem. In fact, most factories do not have any mental-health-care provisions at all for their workers. As a result, most women suffer in silence.

Finally, our research identified a disturbing correlation between employment in the garment industry and violence (physical, emotional, and sexual) against women. A staggering 43 per cent of respondents said they had been sexually assaulted by a spouse during the previous year. To put this figure in perspective, the national average for this form of violence is 13 per cent. While we don’t have the data for a conclusive assessment of why rates of abuse are so high in the garment trade, the data are consistent with the prevailing popular view that women in this field are somehow associated with sex work and sexual promiscuity.

There is no doubt that women in Bangladesh have earned a degree of autonomy and financial independence from their participation in the garment industry. But, as our data illustrate, these gains have come at a cost. And, although activists and industry insiders recognise that attitudes and abusive practices toward female workers must change, there is currently no consensus about how to proceed.

We think it is time to change that, and a good place to start would be by pushing multinational firms to make gender equality a high priority. Many of the global brands that rely on Bangladesh’s factories have committed to gender parity in their corporate offices. They should do the same on the production side, where managerial positions are occupied almost exclusively by men, a disparity that reinforces the gender imbalance elsewhere in society.

But perhaps the most important change to be made is to engage men in a dialogue on gender. In several African countries, gender-sensitisation initiatives have reduced discrimination and violence against women. One programme in West Africa, for example, brings husbands and wives together for mediated “dialogue sessions” to improve women’s role in financial decision-making. To make similar gains in Bangladesh, profound changes in policies and programs are needed. The garment industry and men more broadly must commit to the goal of women’s empowerment.

After nearly 40 years on the job, women are the driving force behind Bangladesh’s most important industry. But at the moment, they are paying too high a physical and emotional price.

Ruchira Tabassum Naved is a social scientist and gender specialist at icddr,b; Sadika Akhter is an anthropologist working as a deputy project coordinator at icddr,b.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

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