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

    Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Attack, but Questions Remain

    Turkish sources say North Caucasus militants involved in bombing at Ataturk airport, but name of at least one alleged attacker raises doubts

    With Johnson Out, Can a New ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Save Britain?

    Contest to replace David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister started in earnest Thursday with top candidates outlining strategy to deal with Brexit fallout

    US Finds Progress Slow Against Human Trafficking in Africa

    Africa continues to be a major source and destination for human trafficking of all kinds -- from forced labor to sexual slavery, says State Department report

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Eitheri
    X
    Jim Malone
    June 29, 2016 6:16 PM
    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora