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

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid