Female employment in the country's industrial arena dates back to only a few decades. Though employment in the informal and semi-informal sectors including in agricultural and associated farm activities in rural areas can be traced far back, it was basically in the early eighties when, with the emergence of the readymade garment (RMG) industry, female employment in industrial manufacturing experienced a huge watershed. 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. So, when it comes to female labour force, it is the RMG sector that essentially determines the prevailing scene.
In some recent surveys conducted by local and international agencies it has been found that the number of female workers in the county's readymade garment sector has been decreasing over the years. A BRAC university initiative conducted by Mapped in Bangladesh showed that the ratio of female workers now stands at 58.30 per cent. A previous survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue in 2018 showed that participation of female workers in the RMG sector was 60.80 per cent. The International Labour Organisation's baseline study, however, found that women represented 61.17 per cent of the sector's workforce in 2018, a decline from 63.4 per cent in 2010.
The Asian Centre for Development recently conducted a survey on the RMG sector and its initial findings showed that the ratio of female workers now stands at 59.2 per cent as against 65 per cent in 2015. A total of 4.20 million workers now work in the garment sector. Of these, 2.49 million are women and 1.82 million men. Five years ago, a total of 4.1 million workers were engaged in the garment sector. The number of women was 2.59 million, and that of men 1.4 million. Two hundred nineteen thousand workers have been added to the garment sector in five years, according to the findings of the survey. In other words, the number of workers in the sector has increased at an average rate of 1.8 per cent every year. At this time, the growth of male inclusion was 4.0 per cent, while the number of women workers has decreased at the rate of 0.6 per cent every year.
There may be conflicting findings because of the timelines used in the studies and surveys. However, the common perception that there has been a decline in recent times in women employment can hardly be contested. The ongoing pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the RMG industry. Drastic fall in export orders has forced many factories to run with limited workforce, and chances of the retrenched workforce getting back to work does not look bright enough in the near future.
A couple of years ago, the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) came up with a detailed finding on the overall state of women employment in the country. The BIDS study presented the narrative of faltering female employment in the country over a period of some 6-8 years, while examining the trends in overall as well as sector-specific employment. Besides, it examined the rural-urban mix as well as increase or decrease in women employment in various sectors.
According to the study, the number of female employees in the country as a whole fell 13.10 per cent to 5.07 million in 2018 compared to 5.51 million in 2013. Taken together, overall employment of women in Bangladesh shrank to 28.5 per cent in 2018 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. However, there are areas which could not be covered under the study.
Informal employment in various forms, including that of domestic help all over the country is difficult to bring into a 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.
Globally, South Asian region ranks at the bottom in terms of women employment. Rate of employment in the region is lower than most other regions. As for Bangladesh, the rate is lower than those of some of the south Asian countries.
In view of the need to bring the rural womenfolk 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 as well. 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 proves to be a major factor impeding employment is that the training facilities are not well-targeted to meet the job requirements, especially when it comes to factory jobs. Absence of basic literacy among the overwhelming majority of women seeking factory jobs is also a deterrent. Thus it is the required skills that can only qualify women to become part of the workforce in a sustainable manner.