There are currently around 4,500 registered factories under the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). About 4.20 million women work at these ready-made garments (RMG) factories accounting for over 60 percent of the total workforce. Most of these women have come from the rural areas, but their financial status remains by and large insolvent. Despite that, they often act as the saviour cum driving force in running their own families.
The 'Working with Women' project under the 'Inclusive Business Program' of the Dutch development agency SNV has recently released a report on the experiences of about 50 thousand female workers working in 25 Bangladeshi RMG factories under its jurisdiction. It revealed that these workers suffered from ignorance and misconceptions about sexual cum reproductive health, malnutrition and non-communicable diseases. Some of the female workers remained absent from their factories for a few days solely because of menstruation problem. This problem becomes even more acute because of improper handling and non-availability of quality healthcare products for tackling menstruation, including sanitary pads, in sufficient quantities and affordable prices.
Besides, although adoption of birth control methods is related to sexual cum reproductive health, many RMG factories did not take that into cognizance. Workers of only 354 factories were supplied with birth control devices or contraceptives (pills, condoms, long-term methods, injections etc.) through government initiatives. In fact, only a handful of factories extend reproductive health facilities including counselling to the workers. Besides, there is no effective remedy against sexual harassment of female workers in most of the factories, and the initiative for introducing health insurance schemes in RMG factories has not yet yielded desired result.
In the above backdrop, some observations and recommendations may be put forward from dialogues, studies and surveys on enhancing sexual cum reproductive health awareness among the workers employed in RMG factories, as the productivity of any sector is directly linked to the wellbeing of its workers. There has been a general consensus that the sexual cum reproductive health rights of the RMG workers should be accorded top priority by all stakeholders in order to make the sector more productive and sustainable. Moreover, the government and other stakeholders should make a concerted effort for implementing health insurance schemes for the RMG workforce in order to protect and preserve their health. These schemes can be made sustainable through constitution of a high-level body with representations from the health economics unit of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, BGMEA, BKMEA, and a central insurance fund. The government, owners and workers should all contribute to these schemes in a realistic and proportionate manner. While fixing the premiums and attendant benefits, expenditure based on types of disease, inclusion of the workers and family-members, types of service-delivery and the gender-friendly character of schemes should be taken into consideration.
Obligations in the area of sexual cum reproductive health rights as well as compliance in the light of labour law should be equally applied and made effective in all RMG factories of Bangladesh. Internal control and audit of factories should be strengthened for maintaining a common standard while carrying out reproductive health-related obligations under the compliance regime. Besides, awareness should be raised among workers so that they overcome their initial hesitation and become more inclined to report gender-based violence in factories. The government should ratify the ILO Convention No. 190 (Violation and Harassment Convention, 2019) and start framing and applying specific law in the field. In addition, more publicity efforts should be undertaken under the 'Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence against Women' of the government for improving the situation.
Similar to their lack of nutrition, many female RMG workers often cannot appreciate the situation when they undergo mental problems or traumas. Therefore, alongside sexual cum reproductive health, awareness should be generated among them regarding these two critical malaises as well. Time has also come to create women's quota in important positions in order to ensure leadership roles for women in the running of factories, as female workers would feel more at ease with them in discussing sexual cum reproductive health issues. The participation of male workers alongside females should be encouraged in training and awareness generation programs in order to make those more effective. Subsidies on sanitary pads for female workers should be ensured through public-private collaboration alongside raising awareness among them on the subject. The government can take measures for incorporation of the provision of supplying sanitary pads (similar to sanitary toilet) in the labour law of Bangladesh. Specific and appropriate guidelines should be formulated and issued for ensuring proper menstruation management and cleanliness inside factories.
The RMG workers often cannot apply their knowledge gathered from training sessions because of the hard labour they have to put in daily over a long stretch of time, additional working hours, as well as many other contextual concerns. Therefore, the awareness generation programs should be repeated after periodic gaps so that the workers are better equipped to apply their knowledge at the workplace. An environment free from coercion and threat should also be maintained, so that they can lodge complaints when the occasions arise. Remedies should also be ensured through an effective grievance handling mechanism. The guidelines prepared by the government for protecting workers must be rigorously enforced for upholding their safety and wellbeing.
No industrial sector in the country can survive or thrive in the long run without a productive, healthy and resilient workforce. Therefore, the sexual cum reproductive health of female workers in RMG factories must be ensured as they account for a majority of the workers. The availability of proper healthcare, nutritious food and quality sanitary pad should be ensured at the places they work and live through concerted actions by relevant stakeholders. Multipurpose and cluster-based service centres can be established for the purpose. There must also be sufficient opportunities and avenues for the female workers and staffs to rise in ranks, so that they can occupy leadership positions in the RMG factories in a more numerical and substantive manner.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.