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 VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. More

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

Dropout rate at an all-time high in South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during 3-year civil war More

Tennessee Songbirds Fly Coop Long Before Tornadoes Arrive

Researchers say birds apparently alerted to danger by sounds at frequencies below range of human hearing More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportionali
X
Aru Pande
December 19, 2014 1:45 AM
The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportional

The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid