News / Asia

Bangladesh Hopes Garment Sector Change Will Empower Women

Rescue workers rescue a woman from the rubble of the Rana Plaza building 17 days after the building collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.
Rescue workers rescue a woman from the rubble of the Rana Plaza building 17 days after the building collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.
Anjana Pasricha
In Bangladesh, the recent deaths of more than 1,100 workers in a collapsed building turned global attention on unsafe working conditions in the country’s thriving garment industry.  Many hope the attention focused on the industry will improve safety standards and also working conditions for women who dominate the work force.

Runa, 23, is among the tens of thousands of women who labor over sewing machines in Dhaka and its suburbs churning out clothes for Western retailers. 

Earning a living

Runa’s family moved to the Bangladeshi capital a decade ago from a village where they barely eked out a living from the patch of land they owned.

Runa is happy in Dhaka.

She said contentment lies where there is work to do.  She works the whole day and cooks her meals in the evening.

The working hours are long and Runa misses the easy paced life of the village.  But her monthly wage of $75 is a huge compensation. 

With her husband’s salary from his employment in the garment sector, the couple earns enough money to buy sufficient food and a tiny home, and maintain a small savings account in the bank.

They are also able to send money to her mother-in-law in the village. 

A thriving industry

As Bangladesh’s garment industry grew during the past 15 years, a steady stream of women like Runa migrated from villages to Dhaka in search of work.  Eighty percent of the industry’s workforce is women, most of them between the ages of 18 and 25 years.

For these young women, the thriving garment sector has emerged as the only option to toiling on fields, working as house maids or at construction sites. 

The director of the Center for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, Mustafizur Rahman, said the garment industry has played a crucial role in empowering women socially and economically. 
     
“Many of these women are first generation workers.  Many of these girls used to be working at home as maids in middle class and upper middle class houses in Dhaka and metropolitan areas.  They have now taken up an industrial job which provides them with independence, provides them with opportunity to earn their own money, contribute to their family, so they are income earners now and they also have freedom.”

Unfortunately, empowerment is just one aspect of the industry, now the second largest in the world after China.  The other is exploitation.

The dark underbelly of the garment sector was starkly exposed in recent months by two massive industrial accidents.  In April, an eight story building housing several garment factories buckled, killing more than 1,100 workers.  In November, more than 100 people died when a fire engulfed another garment factory.  

  • A man walks at the site where a garment factory building collapsed on April 24 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 13, 2013.
  • Reshma Begum, center, the 19-year-old seamstress who spent 17 days trapped in the rubble of a collapsed factory building talks to the media at a hospital in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 13, 2013.
  • Rescuers carry a survivor pulled out from the rubble of a building that collapsed in Saver, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.
  • People work in the rubble of a collapsed garment factory in Savar near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.
  • Rescuers carry the body of a victim from the rubble of a building that collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, May 7, 2013.
  • A woman cries after she identified her relative's body that was recovered from the rubble of a collapsed garment factory building, Savar, Bangladesh, May 3, 2013.
  • The remaining standing part of the collapsed Rana Plaza building collapses during a rescue operation by the army in Savar, Bangladesh, May 2, 2013.
  • Relatives mourn as they look for garment workers, missing after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 2, 2013.
  • Workers dig mass graves during a burial of unidentified garment workers, who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 1, 2013.
  • A boy covers his nose with a cloth as people gather in front of mass graves during the burial of unidentified garment workers, who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 1, 2013.
  • A woman waits for news of her relative, a garment worker, who is missing after the collapse of Rana Plaza building, in front of missing people posters in Savar, Bangladesh, April 30, 2013.
  • Firefighters and army personnel are blanketed in thick dust after part of the garment factory building collapses after being dislodged as part of the clearing process in Savar, near Dhaka, April 29, 2013.
  • Crowds gather at the collapsed Rana Plaza building as people rescue garment workers trapped in the rubble, Savar, Bangladesh, April 24, 2013.


Hope for change

In Bangladesh, many are hoping these tragedies will be a catalyst to address a host of issues relating to workers rights, including higher wages.  

“In the context of current industrial accident, what has become more publicized is the unsafe work environment etc.," said Rushidan Islam Rahman, Research Director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies in Dhaka. "But at the same time, I would highlight that there are other problems.  The terms of employment for women should improve.  There are problems of low wage.  I have heard complaints of not getting regular weekly wages.  They should receive wages on time.  And there should be some salary increment every year.”

It is a message that re-enforces another reaching the garment industry and the government: without fundamental change in the industry, many Western retailers may quietly pull out and explore buying from other Asian countries.

There are also widespread calls for Western retailers to do more to make the industry sustainable, and ensure that garment factories are not death traps churning out clothes on the back of cheap labor. 

The government has taken some steps.  Workers, heavily restricted from forming unions until recently, will now be allowed to unionize without permission from factory owners. 

This could be critical in protecting their rights.  Labor leaders point out that it was the threat of pay cuts that forced many employees to continue working in the Rana Plaza building despite the appearance of cracks.  With a union, they could have refused to comply.

The government is also considering raising the minimum wage in the sector from the current $38 a month - less than half of that in many other Asian countries.

Rushidan Islam Rahman, hopes quick steps will be taken to protect the future of a sector she says has contributed immensely in bringing about a fundamental change in the lives of many women.  

"When women get a regular job and have a regular earning, they spend a larger percentage of their income on say food and for children’s education.  So family’s situation improves, its standard of living, its food intake, children’s education etc and as a result their status in the family and also in the society improves," said Rahman.  
  
This is what women like Runa also want - a safe environment to work in, higher wages and a working day that does not stretch to 12 long hours.

You May Like

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More