Declining women employment
The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has recently come up with a rather unsettling finding on the state of women employment in the country. The BIDS study, no doubt a laudable work, presents the narrative of faltering female employment in the country over a period of some 4-5 years, while examining the trends in overall as well as sector-specific employment.
According to the study, the number of female employees fell by 13.10 per cent to 5.07 million in Bangladesh last year compared to 5.51 million in 2013. Taken together, overall employment of women in Bangladesh shrank to 28.5 per cent in 2016 from 32.8 per cent in 2013. A number of reasons were attributed to the decline, especially in urban locations. These among others included closure of subcontracting businesses in the garment sector, withdrawal of female workers from part-time jobs for different reasons, including shifting of factories or starting of their own businesses.
The study shows, employment of female workers in the industrial sector decreased to 16.1 per cent in 2016 from 23.7 per cent in 2013, while it declined to 14.9 per cent from 22.5 per cent in 2013 in the manufacturing sector. However, employment of female workers in the agricultural sector rose to 63.1 per cent in 2016 from 53.5 per cent in 2013.
Another curious aspect revealed in the study is a mix of increase and decrease of female workforce beyond the big urban locations. This has been possible for a variety of opportunities including those available in the agro sector. Division-wise, the biggest rise in the labour force participation by female workers was noticed in Khulna division. In 2016, participation of female in jobs in Khulna rose to 42.2 per cent from 26.9 per cent in 2013. In Rajshahi, the participation rate was 49.8 per cent last year from 34.1 per cent during the period, while in Barisal it declined to 29.8 per cent from 30.9 per cent in 2013. In Chittagong too, participation rate declined to 34 per cent from 36.4 per cent during the period, and in Sylhet it has been decreasing gradually since 2006, the study says.
It is true that globally the South Asian region ranks at the bottom in respect of women employment. Rate of employment in the region is lower than most other regions. As for Bangladesh, the rate is lower even compared to some of the south Asian countries. However, emergence of the garment sector was a huge watershed for boosting female employment in the country decades back. The garment industry is an important component of the country's economy accounting for approximately three-quarters of total export earnings. The boom had a major influence on Bangladesh's female labour market. This, for the first time in the history of the country, exposed women-mostly rural, uneducated women-to factory work culture. The stalemate or decrease in employment generation for women in this sector must not be deemed a dead-end, as prospects do lurk in a host of other areas, including in the manufacturing arena.
Notably, informal employment in various forms, including that of domestic help all over the country is difficult to bring into survey for analysis. Besides, overseas employment, though at a very nascent stage, is also not likely to figure in any study, so far. Women employment in the rural industries is a new area for investigation in the socio-economic environment of Bangladesh. In view of the need to bring rural women in the development stream of the country, the government, NGOs and other related agencies have been providing facilities to develop skills for employment as well as to promote entrepreneurial skills. Income-generating activities, credit facilities, skill training, market opportunities have put in place an environment for entrepreneurial development among women in rural locations. But the opportunities do not seem to offer enough avenues for women to be equipped with the required skills for suitable employment or let them become self-employed in their own undertakings.
What appears to be a major factor responsible for impeding employment is that the training facilities are not well-targeted to meet the job requirements, especially when it comes to technical or technological know-how. Absence of basic literacy among the overwhelming majority of women seeking factory jobs is indeed a deterring factor. Social taboos also play a role in keeping women away from formal employment, but they are otherwise engaged in a host of household activities that have significant economic implications.
Given the declining trend of female employment in the country, especially in industrial employment, it is critically important that the government's relevant ministry drew a medium- to long-term roadmap to ensure that women seeking employment are offered the right opportunity and created well-targeted training and skill development programmes to obviate the situation.