By 2013, about 4 million people – mostly women – worked in Bangladesh’s $19 billion-a-year export-oriented ready-made garment (RMG) industry. Bangladesh is second to China in being the world’s largest apparel exporter of western brands. About 60% of the export contracts of western brands are with European buyers and about 40% with American buyers.
There is a paradox in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The practices have resulted in the deaths of at least 2,000 people since 2005; however, it is virtually the only way the nation’s women and young girls can claw their way out of poverty and illiteracy. 10-hour shifts spent hunched over sewing machines seem grueling but offer a once-in-a-generation chance for 3.5 million Bangladeshis – mostly women – to better their lives.
According to a study conducted by Rachel Heath of the University of Washington and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak of Yale University’s School of Management, about 12% of Bangladeshi women from 15-30 years of age worked in the garment industry in 2011. Their pay was 13% greater in comparison to other industries that rely on manual labor. Most importantly, the researchers found that 27% more young girls who worked in the garment industry attended school as opposed to those who worked in other industries.
Majority of the garment workers are from poor families and villages, and they must arrive at their jobs on time. As a result, workers rent rooms near the factory. As rent prices are high (anywhere from Bangladeshi Taka 2000-2500), the workers live with overcrowding and other subhuman living conditions as a way to cut costs. Four to five workers often share quarters, including one common latrine and a small kitchen. After a laborious day at work, they come back to their quarters to cook and eat their their meals on their beds or unhygienic floors. Commonly, they also sleep where they eat their food, and often workers will share a single bed or sleep on the floor.
Because of harassment and other safety concerns, workers without relatives have no other option than to live in hostels. One room often fits three girls with less than three beds. I think it is really hard to share a room with a stranger: I have heard that girls disagree and fight about living space, which causes girls to leave the safety of these hostel rooms.
In comparison, the owners of these factories profit from their workers’ cheap labour: they drive the most luxurious cars and live in luxurious houses, and I wonder if they ever think about the workers. For the sake of their humanity, it is important to provide them better accommodations in addition to providing them the job.
There are substantial differences in the frequency and forms of harassment
between garment factories and bangle factories and electronics factories, especially local factories. Discrepancies also exist between large and small factories located in the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) and the Free Trade Zones. In all cases, the smaller factories producing garments tend to have the most exploitative conditions.
I am a consultant to NGOs working at every field level in very close touch of our beneficiaries and people. Experts, especially of international donors, national government agencies or the UN, are well-informed of the law, legislation, workers’ interest and protection. However, they focus primarily on sexual harassment and misconduct of the supervisors towards the girls. While sexual harassment is a huge issue, I think any type of victimization of women is worthy of attention. Women should be able to live their lives fully.
About the Author
Paul P. Saha is a professional consultant who actively serves 300 government registered NGOs in Bangladesh. The last 30 years, he has been effectively and successfully showing his extraordinary contribution in preservation of human rights to the disadvantaged and vulnerable girls and women.