Over the past three decades the Readymade Garment (RMG) sector has become crucial to Bangladesh’s economy. According to the WTO, Bangladesh became the fourth largest RMG producing country in the world after China, EU-27 and Turkey while it has been the largest exporter of cotton T-shirts and the second largest exporter of cotton pullover and jeans for the European Union. Also, Bangladesh’s exports of cotton trousers in the USA ranked second by volume. The RMG sector contributes a staggering 78 per cent of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange earnings, keeps many associated service businesses going and provides employment to millions of workers, approximately 80 per cent of whom are women, who otherwise would be hard pressed to find wage labour.
Looking into many scientific studies and popular discourses, it is an undeniable fact that the Bangladeshi women workers in the RMG industries in the era of globalisation are absolutely deprived of their labour rights, vividly manifested in the country’s labour law. It is equally significant that a large number of industrial reserve army entered in the formal labour force, who otherwise would have lived unemployed or underemployed. This is why one important debate among the policymakers, academics and the experts is whether the rural, migrant workers who enter the new manufacturing factories in ‘Majority World’ countries experience significant changes in their lives.
From the economic point of view there is no doubt that now women workers are earning cash from a formal sector, which is undoubtedly new in their lives. It is because most women workers came from rural areas, and in those areas almost all of them did not have any formal employment. In terms of earning cash, the status of most workers is now better compared to their previous non-wage earner status. In addition, many women workers readily acknowledge that they are now better off compared to their previous lives from different points of views — their lives have been changed as now they can save some money, though tiny in amount, for the future (some have bank accounts); they can help their parents and siblings by sending money to their village homes; they can go to markets and can shop, although limited in manner, according to their necessities and wishes by their own money; they can eat something, though not always, if they wish; they can enjoy leisure and recreation opportunities such as going to cinema halls or eating in the restaurants. Another significant improvement of the women workers’ lives is their mobility. Now the women workers can visit somewhere without much concern as the garment workers are a significant component of the population of Dhaka City. Interestingly, they have broken the so called Purdah, although different corners in the society still carry out many traditional norms related to Purdah.
Another significant feature for women workers is that now many are in transition towards urban norms (e.g., individualism) in terms of altering their archetype gender role and dependency on their husbands. Almost all the women workers contribute in their families financially. It is also a trend that many workers develop romantic relationships with their co-workers and later they get married. From the perspective of mate selection, it is definitely a progress as in the past girls had little choice regarding mate selection considering the common practice of arranged marriage culture in Bangladesh. It is evident that many workers get married with their co-workers and both the members contribute in the family in terms of sharing family expenditures. On the whole, one can say that the women workers have positive changes in their lives compared to their previous positions. However, it seems contentious that the debate about whether women have become empowered, as some sociologists or others want to adopt, is less useful and telling because the term ‘empowerment’ is too conceptually fuzzy.
What I think appropriate and telling is that through factory jobs women workers enter in capitalist, modern and urban relationships and thereby develop capitalist norms and values in their lives leaving aside, but not discarding, their traditional rural norms and values. And this is why I think it is a transitional phase of their lives. Since, as we know, capitalism cannot be a panacea and since capitalist relations do not always enhance empowerment, there are negative aspects too related to the relative development of these workers’ lives. For example, one cannot deny the fact that most women workers are systematically exploited by the employers in terms of depriving what the workers minimally deserve according to the country’s law. Although the women are now earning money, most of them are earning at the cost of very laborious and exploitative; no doubt, a significant portion of their labour is unpaid. Hence, it is a matter of argument whether they are better doing enormous work compared to their previous lives having relatively less stress and work. Moreover, because of hard work with little rest who knows whether the workers are developing hidden diseases that they might feel later in their old ages. Indeed, some studies have disclosed that many women workers in Bangladesh suffer from serious illness and their working lives have been shortened due to environmental hazards and sickness. The recent Rana Plaza incident that snatched 1138 lives and the recent Tazreen Fashion snatching 112 lives are also very crucial examples about the vulnerability and insecurity of the female workers in the RMG industries in Bangladesh. These incidents show how the garment workers are working everyday with high life-threatening risks.
One more negative aspect is that the RMG industry in the Majority World has been developed by the necessities of a capitalist world-system, especially in connection with American hegemony. From a micro perspective, decisions on investments and relocation are mainly, though not absolutely, determined by labour costs where every country is competing against another which has often been described as the race to the bottom. In this globalised process, the third world owners have always a risk of losing the orders, just as the workers have the risk of losing their jobs. Hence, it is an open question whether the employment and development of the poor women in the export-led industrialisation is a panacea if taking a broader historical perspective. This is similar to what we encountered in the area of jute and jute good industries in Bangladesh. When jute and jute good industries flourished in Bangladesh, the miserable conditions of the workers were explained in terms of first generation workers in early industrialisation. After more than 100 hundred years, we have another “first generation industry,” i.e. the RMG industry, where the workers are exploited in an extreme fashion even though some aspects of their lives have changed for the better. In fact, we don’t know at this point whether the vast number of workers will become superfluous in the coming years due to the relocation of RMG production to countries with cheaper labour forces than Bangladesh.
Zia Rahman is a Professor and Chairman of the Department of Criminology, University of Dhaka. His area of interest is labour unions and labour movements.