DHAKA, Bangladesh – Before April 24, 2013, all Rehnuma* wanted was for her little sister Jhumki to land a job at the same garment factory as her.
The array of sewing machines clicking away in the humid factory, the long hours, the hard-nosed supervisors, they all translated into one thing for Rehnuma: economic freedom.
She and Jhumki had come to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, after Cyclone Sidr devastated their village in the southern part of the country in 2007 – they lost both their home and their ailing father (their mother had died long before). When Rehnuma got a job in a small ready-made garment factory on the city’s outskirts, her starting salary was barely enough to survive. But it kept a roof over their heads.
About five years later, her salary had nearly doubled and she started dreaming of getting Jhumki a sewing job in the factory, starting a savings account and eventually buying a few sewing machines to start a small subcontractor business.
But her dream was destroyed when Rana Plaza, the building that housed her factory, collapsed. A total of 1,129 people were killed and around 2,500 others injured in one of the worst industrial disasters in history.
Rehnuma, now 28, came out alive, but the trauma of gasping for breath beneath the debris for 10 hours still haunts her. She never went back to working in a garment factory.
Rehnuma and Jhumki, 19, now work as contractual housemaids in the capital. Together they bring home little more than $120 per month. “It’s a very small amount and living with this money is very hard now these days. But I can’t think of working in any garment factory anymore,” Rehnuma says.
The Rana Plaza collapse had a profound impact on Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry.
Five years ago, working in a factory was considered a reliable source of income for women, who made up the vast majority of garment workers. Now, the number of women garment workers is on the decline. Some are keeping away from the industry by choice, afraid of another factory collapse. And thousands of others are being shut out of garment factory work by the policies designed to keep them safe.
Safer, But at a Cost
Like Rehnuma, more than 78 percent of the Rana Plaza survivors never went back to work in a garment factory, a 2018 study by ActionAid found. The study also says that more than 48 percent of the survivors were still jobless.
“The Rana Plaza accident was definitely a turning point in Bangladesh’s apparel history. A lot changed after that,” says Nazma Akter, an activist for women workers’ rights and president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (Combined Garments Workers Federation).
“These buyer-driven reforms have obviously made the garment industry a safer place, at least structure wise. This has also resulted huge job losses for the female workers.”
Five years ago, the clothing sector – Bangladesh’s largest export earner, bringing in about $30 billion each year – employed around 4 million people, of which more than 80 percent were women.
Now, according to a study conducted by the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Bangladesh’s top independent economic think-tank, there are 3,596 active ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh with 3.5 million workers, 60.8 percent of them women.
“I wouldn’t say this is due to the shock of the Rana Plaza incident, which stopped women from entering into the sector initially after the collapse. Yes, that obviously played a factor, but this number is decreasing because of some massive changes happening in the few years [since],” Akter says.
After the Rana Plaza accident, Bangladesh and a number of clothing brands based in the E.U., Bangladesh’s largest ready-made garment export destination, signed an accord that committed brands to ensure that dangers in their factories are identified and addressed. At the same time, North American clothing companies, brands and retailers formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and launched a five-year initiative to improve worker safety.
The two groups have put stringent conditions on the garment manufacturers to ensure workers’ safety and their rights, including reducing the size and number of machines in factories to improve working conditions, and restricting the use of unauthorized sub-contractors.
In a report released in March 2018, Mark Anner, the director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State, wrote that the accord has made more than 2.5 million laborers safer. Since the fall of Rana Plaza, garment worker deaths have dropped precipitously, says the International Labor Rights Forum.
“These buyer-driven reforms have obviously made the garment industry a safer place, at least structure-wise,” Akter says. But there is a downside. “This has also resulted huge job losses for the female workers.”
One factor behind those job losses is the new technology and machinery that many garment factories brought in as part of the reform process.
Siddiqur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), says new machinery and technology are essential for both faster output and improved workplace safety.
“After the Rana Plaza accident, we needed to go through a lot of reforms in our infrastructure which cost us significant investment,” he says. “These new machines have freed up a lot of factory space and thus given the workers a better and safer working environment.”
Following the building collapse, the government’s wage board increased the minimum wage for entry-level jobs in the ready-made garment industry from $36 per month to $64 a month. Five years on, the board hopes raise the minimum wage again and is considering proposals from various workers’ associations and unions that go as high as $144 per month.
Some factory owners say that if wages go up again, they will have no option but to rely more heavily on automation, further limiting women’s chances of finding work in the garment sector.
“The wages of labor have also increased. So, we need to adopt new technologies to cut cost and make production efficient at the same time,” Rahman of BGMEA says.
Those new technologies require new skills. Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of CPD, says their study on the impact of upgrading garment factories found that female workers are less knowledgeable about the technology that the industry is bringing in, making it more difficult for them to participate in the garment workforce.
“Female workers are proportionately less knowledgeable about operating different machines compared to male workers,” Moazzem says. “[The women’s] lack of knowledge has created more scope for male workers to enter this female-dominated industry.”
CPD conducted a survey on the 15 most common types of machines operated in the garment industry and found that there are only two machines – both of them sewing machines – with which women workers have more “technical know-how” than men. Most vulnerable are the large numbers of women employed in low-end garment jobs, which are most likely to be filled by automation.
“As women used to comprise most of the low-end jobs, they have lost the most,” Moazzem says.
“At the same time, as male workers have shown better adaptability with the machines and new technologies, their participation has increased.”
Education and Training
Economists say that while moving to new technology is an important step in improving the efficiency and safety of the garment sector, it shouldn’t be at the cost of women’s jobs.
MM Akash, professor of economics of Dhaka University, says despite low wages, jobs at garment factories benefit not only women but also their families and communities. The loss of those jobs, he says, is a bad sign for the country’s economy as a whole.
The image of “thousands of female workers hurrying to their shifts at scores of garment factories” symbolizes Bangladesh’s economic advancement, Akash says. “A decline in the workforce is obviously alarming.”
He would like to see the government educating and training female garment workers to help them learn to use the new technology, instead of letting factories simply replace them with men.
“Bangladesh now aspires to become a middle-income country,” he says. “In doing so, it needs to empower women more than ever.”
*Surnames have been omitted to protect identities.