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An Unequal Battle: Women Garment Workers of Bangladesh

Srijani Roy - Advisor, Gender Equality Mandate

Picture Credit/ The Guardian


Zara, Gap, Levi’s, Marks & Spencers have something in common. No, these fashion brands don’t have the same owner. Instead, they source their merchandise from the same place- Bangladesh. These above mentioned fast fashion rarely own the factories that make these garments. Instead, they are outsourced from countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar and China. Bangladesh is considered to be the hub of cheap human labor and these big fashion brands prefer to exploit the availability of cheap human labor.


In 1971. Bangladesh became an independent country. Within three decades, of becoming independent, it became one of the leading exporters of garments in the world. As per reports, Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of garments in the world. The readymade garment industry accounts for 76% of the total exports of Bangladesh. At present, the country generates about 5 billion dollars worth of products each year as exports.


Picture Credit/ Reuters

The Double Edged Sword of Empowerment and Exploitation

As per newspaper reports, the ready made garment sector in Bangladesh employs 1.2 million workers in its factories. About 90% of the workers employed in various garment factories across Bangladesh are women. The garment industry in Bangladesh has not only generated profits for the economy but has also empowered women in a country where women were traditionally expected to stay indoors while the man of the household goes out to earn the daily bread. These women not only help in sharing the economic burden of the family but also ensure that they are able to provide better opportunities for their children. Many Bangladeshi women working in garment factories, afford the school fees for their children. Yet, the double burden that women face worldwide, of managing the workfont and the household, these Bangladeshi garment factory workers are no exception to it as well. Once their particular shift ends, they cannot afford to have rest, they have to go back home, cook and look after the children. Most of the women working in these garment factories are married. Even if they are not married, they are expected to go back home and help in household chores.


Women in these garment factories rarely occupy managerial positions. The women that are employed in these factories consist of two categories. The first category are those women having little or no formal education; have been forced to migrate due to lack of jobs in rural areas, or victims of natural disasters such as floods. The other category of women employees, mostly residing in urban and semi-urban areas come from very poor backgrounds and are forced to start working from a very young age in order to reduce the economic burden of the family. These women also have little or no education. The women working in the garment industry are easily hired and easily fired. They are usually hired without any formal contract. No compensation is given to these workers once they are laid off.


The working conditions under which these workers are not up to the standard. Factory fires are common. Many young girls (as young as 14 years) join these garment industries , often by forging documents- for them the need for survival is much more than anything else. The workers working in these factories suffer from health problems such as eye strain, headaches, backaches and general weakness. They are not provided with the benefit of health insurance as well.


Around 80% of women working in the garment industry in Bangladesh have experienced sexual violence and harrassment at work. Women are abused more if they fail to meet targets. They are usually fired if they become pregnant. Hence, most of them are forced to hide their pregnancies and continue working for long hours, which adversely affects their health. Some supervisors also beat these women to ensure they work more. 90% of bangladeshi female workers are saying that their jobs negatively affect them but are forced to continue due to poor economic conditions. Two out of five workers have reported having suicidal tendencies. None of the factories have a mental-healthcare- center.


Since most of the women working in these factories have little or no education, they are easily exploited. They are unaware of their rights. They usually refrain from joining trade unions because they fear it will cause them to lose their jobs.


Most of these factories escape from the hands of authorities despite having poor facilities and breaking laws by clearing all evidence before inspections. All workers are coached before the officials come ensuring that the secrets are not let out by anyone. Thus, the vicious cycle of exploitation continues.


Picture Credit/ War on Want


Crisis within a Crisis : The Bangladeshi Women Workers fight for Survival

On the 23rd of March 2020, Bangladesh first introduced a total lockdown for a period of 10 days. Subsequently, the duration of the lockdown began to be extended. When the world began fighting the battle against coronavirus, the Bangladeshi women working in the garment industries began fighting a new battle altogether. This was the battle of survival. With factories closing worldwide, the garment factories of Bangladesh were no exception. This meant these women were rendered without a livelihood. With orders being cancelled, garment factories in Bangladesh began laying off workers. Women are bearing the brunt of this decision; as they comprise most of the total workforce in these garment industries. The Bangladeshi garment industry is almost at the brink of ruins . Most of the foreign brands that source garments from these industries are acting irresponsibly. Even those clients that have not cancelled orders, are asking for discounts or are delaying payments .


On the 25th of March Sheikh Hasina announced 5000 crore for export industries, to help these industries and their workers survive the pandemic. Even Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi had urged the garment factory owners to pay salary for the month of March before the month of April. Despite these efforts by the Government, not much of these decisions could be effectively implemented.


Several fast fashion brands, including the likes of H&M, Marks & Spencers , Inditex to name a few, after facing backlash from the international media and protests by the workers , agreed to help the garment suppliers by taking the shipment of goods that had already been manufactured . They also promised to ensure that payments would be made on time. Despite these efforts, the situation of the female workers of the garment industries has been catastrophic.


On 26th of April, nearly a month after the lockdown was imposed in Bangladesh, Bangladesh garment industries were forced to re-open during the pandemic. The garment industry has suffered huge losses amounting to billions of dollars . Being the backbone of the economy, the garment industries had no choice , but to open amidst a pandemic despite knowing that re-opening would mean the risk of the coronavirus spreading even more rapidly. Most garment industries are unable to provide basic amenities to its workers, neither can they ensure that work in their factories is carried out following the safety guidelines.


Unfortunately, these Bangladeshi women who are the backbone of the garment industry, cannot afford the luxury of staying back within the comforts of their own home even during a pandemic. For them there are two options available : to die of hunger or to die of coronavirus. They are forced to choose the latter. The Government , the fast fashion brands make huge profits through these workers- yet no aid has reached them. Even in such a situation, they are not given any health benefits. Most factory owners are unable to provide enough masks and sanitizers for the workers and most workers have to buy them on their own. They are already struggling and for many of them not buying masks and sanitizers is a better option.

Amid growing concerns regarding the lack of safety measures during a pandemic, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's decision to open garment factories is mainly due to the growing pressure from the garment industry owners and export industry officials. In order to stay in the competition, the garment factory owners are forced to sacrifice the lives of their workers.


Picture Credit/ DW

Conclusion


To conclude, it can be said that the garment industry in Bangladesh has provided the women a degree of autonomy and financial independence but they have to pay a hefty price for it. Many of the global fast fashion brands that rely on Bangladesh's garment industry have on various instances advocated for gender equality. They should try and ensure to do the same for the garment industries as they are heavily dependent on them. Women workers in these garment industries should be provided with better facilities, including health benefits. The International Media and people worldwide have “ forgotten” the plight of these women working in the multi-million dollar garment industries.


Fast fashion has made shopping for the customer much easier and more affordable. However, it comes with a price. The price being exploitation of labor and also a threat to the environment. On average, a consumer throws away 70 pounds ( 31.75 kilograms) of clothing per year. Globally the world produces 13 million tons of textile waste each year, 95% of which could be reused or recycled. The price of our fashion is paid by others.


With the current pandemic situation and our inability to invest in new clothes has rendered a huge population of garment industry workers in Bangladesh without a means to livelihood. All of us are sitting in different parts of the world and cannot do much- yet we can do a lot. As responsible adults we can ensure that our favourite brands pay the workers of the garment industries situated not only in Bangladesh but also other parts of the world. On the other hand, next time when we buy a new garment, we can ask ourselves a question ….do we actually need so many clothes? Can we recycle? Can we donate our clothes to the needy? If the answers to the aforementioned questions are yes then maybe we should start implementing it in our daily lives. Step by step we all can work towards making a better world for our future generations to live in.

Srijani Roy is currently pursuing her Master’s in Sociology from Jadavpur University. Her research interests include studying Gender Equality, Child Rights and Human Rights. She is an Advisor for the Gender Equality program at C.R.R.S.S. She is also heading the magazine project named, Unspoken. When not working you will find her reading a book or sleeping.



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