Traditionally women in Bangladesh are considered docile, naive, and less capable to work hard, only responsible for reproductive work and best caregiver to all. The traditional image of women in the country coupled with the factor that there were not many employment opportunities for women in the country forced women to continue their traditional role. In the early 1980s things started to brighten up for the women when the garments industry started to operate.
Since the 1980s the Bangladesh garment industry has grown dramatically. Garments have been the main export product in Bangladesh and currently Bangladesh is one of the largest garments exporters in the world. Readymade garments make up 80 per cent of the country's $24 billion in annual exports. Currently there are about 4,500 garments factories in Bangladesh employing more than three million people. What is the most important aspect of this industry is that 85% of the workers in this industry are women and a majority of them are young women between the ages of 18 and 32.
Before the emergence of the garments industry the most common place for economic activity for uneducated and low educated women was to work in the agriculture sector or as domestic worker. The garments industry opened up a new opportunity to earn a living for the uneducated and the low educated women in the country. Many women who worked in the agricultural sector and as domestic workers and many women who were not involved in any income generating activities joined the garments industry. Many migrated to the urban areas from rural areas to join this industry. Not just from the lower class but also many women from the middle class family joined this industry. This industry increased the percentage of women involved in the labour force dramatically. Many of the women who joined the garments industry are the main income source of their respective families. Many of the women are the main earning source of their respective families. Although, due to being a male dominating society, they do not get any recognition for their contribution to the family, many of them are actually the breadwinners of their families. Some joined to support their parents, some joined to support their siblings while some joined to support their own children. They leave their families behind back in the villages and travel all the way to the urban areas for a dream of better life for themselves and their family members.
Although, the garments industry has made a big impact in the national economy mainly due to the hard work of these women workers, this industry has earned a bad reputation of providing poor wages to their workers, violating the workers' rights, failing to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for the workers, failing to pay wages on time, most of the time denying statutory maternity rights and denying women any rest periods or time with their children.
The most important factor is that most of the factories lack a healthy and safe working environment. Fire is one of the most common man-made hazards in Bangladesh and most of the factories lack proper fire exits or proper fire exit strategy. As a result of this since 1980, more than 300 garments industry workers have lost their lives while several others have faced life-time injuries due to fires in the garments factor. Most of these victims are women. Most of these factory fire victims and their family members did not receive any sort of financial support or compensation from the factory owners.
Most of these fire accidents occurred because of negligence from the factory owner to comply with safety standards in the factory. However, none of these factory owners were charged for any of their negligent act. This has encouraged the factory owners to continue to violate the safety standards in the factory and to continue to provide a poor working environment for the workers. One of the main reasons is because of the abundance of 'nimble fingers' or cheap women labour in the country. Although, all of the workers know that the working environment is not safe and they may face the flame of fire anytime, they still risk their lives and continue to work here because there is no other better economic activity left for them to be involved in.
Different development economics theories indicate various ways why it is required to involve women for economic growth of a country. Considering this, some have viewed the 'feminisation' of the garment sector as a positive step towards women's emancipation and also for the national economy, but time has come to realise that factory fires are making many of these women and their families poorer and pushing them back to poverty which is not helping Bangladesh in its campaign against poverty alleviation. Thus, instead of providing women with economic emancipation, factory fires are taking away their lives or making them disabled for the rest of their life, shattering their and their family's dreams forever. Time has come to recognise, respect and appreciate the hard work of these women workers and to ensure a healthy and safe working environment for them, offer them a proper wage rate, ensure their rights such as maternity leaves and benefits and also provide them with financial support when they get injured while working. This is because we have to realise that the care that a woman can give to her child and her family cannot be given by a man and we do not want to have a nation full of children who had not received a mother's care.
The writer is Project Coordinator and Gender Specialist at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org