Integral to the Bangladesh apparel manufacturing industry, the number of women garment workers has been going down lately and, various reports, if at all, clearly underlined this trend in the last few years.
Different surveys have cited a host of reasons, which they felt are principally responsible for the dwindling number of women workers, like rapid automation, wage hikes and complex production process and marriages. However,the surveys, at different points in time have thrown different figures as to the number of female garment workers in the industry.
The latest in this direction is a survey conducted by the Asian Center for Development — Asian Center for Development began its operation in 2013 with an objective to promote the concept of Sustainable Asia and in doing so, it promotes research cooperation, exchange of ideas, sharing of knowledge and also understanding among researchers and academics in Asian Countries and is run on not-for-profit basis — which not only came up with latest available numbers while also pointing towards the steep decline in the number of women workers.
According to the ACD, the proportion of female workers in the country’s readymade garment sector declined to 59 per cent in 2020 from 65 per cent in 2015 even as the survey identified that structural changes of RMG industries to knitwear from woven factories and adaption of new technology and machinery had squeezed the opportunity for the female workers.
The report also said that increase in wages in the RMG sector was attracting male workers with higher levels of education to seek jobs in the sector even as the report found that notwithstanding the decline in the number of female apparel workers, the overall number of female and male workers have grown (2 to 4 per cent each year for women, while the number of male workers has grown by 7 to 10 per cent during the same period).
In 2015, the ACD, which then said in its survey that there were 65 per cent female workers in Bangladesh’s RMG sector, in its recent survey maintained that with changes in technology, the factories were looking for more skilled workers, which emerged as a great opportunity for the male workers.
“Many believe that nearly 80 per cent of workers in the RMG sector are female. In this survey, we found that the male to female ratio of RMG workers is 35:65,”underlined the ACD survey titled Garment Workers in Bangladesh: Social Impact of the Garment Industry.
In 2020, the non-government organisation completed its second study titled Socio-economic Profile of Garment Workers of Bangladesh based on randomised surveys conducted on 1,119 workers and managers from 320 factories.
Former Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)Vice-President Mahmud Hasan Khan Babu said that the ratio of female workers might have declined in the RMG sector as educated male workers were showing interest in joining the RMG sector due to increased wages.
“The number of female workers has been increasing every year in the sector and I do not think that the adoption of technology is squeezing the opportunity for the female workers,”said Mahmud Hasan Khan Babu even as the study found that although many factories were closed in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza accident in 2013, the number of workers in the sector increased in 2020 from 2015 as the factories grew 70 per cent larger in size than those in 2014.
The study estimated that the total number of workers employed in the RMG sector was around 4.22 million in 2020, which further added that the yearly family income of the workers had increased by 7 per cent between 2014 and 2020 while the overall cost of living had risen by 7 per cent during the period.
This rise in the cost of living is led by a higher increase in the cost of education, health, personal expenditure and recreation, it said while adding that on an aggregate, the RMG sector workers sent Taka 1,011 crore in remittance per month to the rural economy.
Meanwhile, as per Mapped in Bangladesh or MiB, the current ratio of male to female workers in the garment sector is 41.7:58.3, which challenged previously established data that women account for up to 80 per cent of the apparel industry’s total workforce.
“Our research indicates that women accounted for 65 per cent of the garment sector’s workforce for the last few years, but it has dropped to 58.3 per cent now,” said Syed Hasibuddin Hussain, Project Manager of Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB), an initiative of Brac University.
The survey was conducted in the main export-oriented garment industrial cluster zones in Dhaka, Narayanganj, Gazipur and Chittagong, which cover more than 80 per cent of the industry.
Syed Hasibuddin, who has been leading a research team of about 25 people under the MiB project, further added that the overall number of garment workers may increase to some extent during the final stage of the study. However, the number is declining gradually, he said even as the researchers have been trying to determine the actual number of export-oriented garment factories in the country since June 2018.
The wage hike, rapid automation, marital status and Bangladesh’s shift to complex garment production are the main reasons for the declining number of female garment workers, who historically carried the country’s single largest export sector for the last four decades, Hussain underlined.
One of Bangladesh’s major weak points is that after the collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013, there was no exact data on the Bangladesh’s export-oriented garment factories, as the Bangladeshi garment supply chain was widely criticised by Western consumers following the disaster, Hussain said further while adding that this is why the MiB project was undertaken by Brac University in collaboration with the Embassy of the Netherlands in Bangladesh, the BGMEA and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA).
However, notwithstanding the discrepancy as to the number of manufacturing units even if researchers have reportedly traced 3,223 factories in four districts, of which, 1,171 are in Dhaka, 1,053 in Gazipur, 613 in Narayanganj, and 386 in Chittagong, of this total number of factories (3,223), 1,886 are reportedly members of the BGMEA and 512 are members of the BKMEA while around 574 factories are not members of any of the two associations but are engaged in export-oriented garment production, the researchers reportedly found.
Notwithstanding the earlier discrepancy as to the number of factories, the surveys have firmly established that the number of women workers is definitely on the decline while also figuring out the reasons why. And one would agree this is not a very positive development when looked at from the perspective of the women workers, for majority of whom, the sector offered a rare opportunity towards achieving economic independence and self sufficiency, which is a far-fetched dream for many otherwise.