a year ago

Declining women's participation in RMG

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According to an FE report titled 'The declining women workers in Bangladesh RMG industry', the participation of women workers in readymade garments (RMG) industry has apparently dropped significantly to about 54 per cent. The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), GiZ and Brac University jointly conducted the research work; and it was funded by Sustainable Textile Initiative: Together for Change (STITCH) and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

From the issues highlighted in the report, it appears the trend will have serious ramifications for both women's empowerment and the industry, which is the principal exporting sector that outstrips all other sectors. Although there may be attempts to downplay the report by some quarters, the study requires further scrutiny. Some unpalatable findings point to discriminatory practices aimed at women workers - for being pregnant or having smaller children that need to be cared for (at the workplace). The work is hard at these factories. The shifts are strictly maintained and it leaves workers exhausted. For women, it is particularly tough as they must find that delicate balance between work and leisure. But then, what does leisure time constitute for working women? They are expected not only to earn, but also take care of the household, rear the young, cook, clean, take care of other members of the household, etc. For many, this is mission impossible at one point of time or other.

That said, it is by no means an easy choice to leave employment in factories, but if it is happening to the extent as pointed out in the report then there is a cause for worry. Again, to what extent only the reasons that have been highlighted for this trend need to be looked into. Could it be that the rural economy, particularly the shorthanded situation with farm labour has anything to do with it? What are the wages over there and what working conditions do they offer that may offer better chances for women to take care of their young and / or simply provide a more flexible work/life balance? Because 77 per cent of reasons cited by job leavers do point to the fact that "family" is a big factor in the decision to leave a RMG job. Again, there is the question of living quarters. While sexual harassment has been cited as a major cause, the other not-so-talked about condition is the fact that a lot of women workers take up residence near their workplaces and the rents are exorbitant, which eats up a major portion of earnings, leaving little take-home pay.

But as pointed out earlier, for many women, working in an environment which they perceive is less-than-friendly, questions over payment being on-time, harassment, etc. are all becoming contributing factors to more and more women either leaving factories or simply not taking up employment in the sector. Although many major RMG conglomerates have invested significantly to improve the lives of their workers by introducing fair-price shops, crèche and healthcare facilities etc., it is obviously not an industry-wide practice. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of factories that are small in their operations and either the money or the awareness (or both) are lacking on the part of management to make meaningful changes to improve working conditions. At the end of the day, these factors (and others) need to be looked into by both buyers and sellers to find workable solutions, because the industry as a whole depends largely on women workers, not men. A worker shortage will bring no good to anyone, particularly to the RMG sector and export earnings.


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