The collapse of the Rana Plaza building sent shockwaves through Bangladesh and prompted a series of reforms to improve worker safety in garment factories. Five years on, the measures designed to protect employees are also shutting many women out of the workforce.
The Rana Plaza collapse has had a profound impact on Bangladesh's readymade garment industry. Five years ago, working in a garment factory was considered a reliable source of income for women, who made up the vast majority of garment workers. Now, the number of women garment workers is on the decline. Some are keeping away from the industry by choice, afraid of another factory collapse. And thousands of others are being shut out of garment factory work by the policies designed to keep them safe.
More than 78% of the Rana Plaza survivors never went back to work in a garment factory, a 2018 study by ActionAid found. The study also says that more than 48% of the survivors were still jobless. "The Rana Plaza accident was definitely a turning point in Bangladesh's apparel history. A lot changed after that," says Nazma Akter, an activist for women workers' rights and president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (Combined Garments Workers Federation). "These buyer-driven reforms have obviously made the garment industry a safer place, at least structure wise. This has also resulted in huge job losses for the female workers."
Five years ago, the clothing sector – Bangladesh's largest export earner, bringing in about US$ 30 billion each year – employed around 4 million people, of which more than 80% were women. Now, according to a study conducted by the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Bangladesh's top independent economic think-tank, there are 3,596 active ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh with 3.5 million workers, 60.8% of them women.
"I wouldn't say this is due to the shock of the Rana Plaza incident, which stopped women from entering into the sector initially after the collapse. Yes, that obviously played a factor, but this number is decreasing because of some massive changes happening in the few years since," Akter says.
After the Rana Plaza accident, Bangladesh and a number of clothing brands based in the EU, Bangladesh's largest ready-made garment export destination, signed an accord that committed brands to ensure that dangers in their factories are identified and addressed. At the same time, North American clothing companies, brands and retailers formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and launched a five-year initiative to improve worker safety.
The two groups have put stringent conditions on the garment manufacturers to ensure workers' safety and their rights, including reducing the size and number of machines in factories to improve working conditions, and restricting the use of unauthorised sub-contractors.
In a report released in March 2018, Mark Anner, the director of the Center for Global Workers' Rights at Penn State, wrote that the accord has made more than 2.5 million labourers safer. Since the fall of Rana Plaza, garment worker deaths have dropped precipitously, says the International Labor Rights Forum.
One factor behind those job losses is the new technology and machinery that many garment factories brought in as part of the reform process. Siddiqur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), says new machinery and technology are essential for both faster output and improved workplace safety.
"After the Rana Plaza accident, we needed to go through a lot of reforms in our infrastructure which cost us significant investment," he says. "These new machines have freed up a lot of factory space and thus given the workers a better and safer working environment."
Following the building collapse, the government's wage board increased the minimum wage for entry-level jobs in the readymade garment industry from $36 per month to $64 a month. Five years on, the board hopes to raise the minimum wage again and is considering proposals from various workers' associations and unions that go as high as $144 per month.
Some factory owners say that if wages go up again, they will have no option but to rely more heavily on automation, further limiting women's chances of finding work in the garment sector. "The wages of labour have also increased. So, we need to adopt new technologies to cut cost and make production efficient at the same time," Rahman of BGMEA says.
New technologies require new skills. Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of CPD, says their study on the impact of upgrading garment factories found that female workers are less knowledgeable about the technology that the industry is bringing in, making it more difficult for them to participate in the garment workforce.
"Female workers are proportionately less knowledgeable about operating different machines compared to male workers," Moazzem says. "The women's lack of knowledge has created more scope for male workers to enter this female-dominated industry."
CPD conducted a survey on the 15 most common types of machines operated in the garment industry and found that there are only two machines – both of them sewing machines – with which women workers have more "technical know-how" than men. Most vulnerable are the large numbers of women employed in low-end garment jobs, which are most likely to be filled by automation.
"As women used to comprise most of the low-end jobs, they have lost the most," Moazzem says. "At the same time, as male workers have shown better adaptability with the machines and new technologies, their participation has increased."
Education and Training
Economists say that while moving to new technology is an important step in improving the efficiency and safety of the garment sector, it shouldn't be at the cost of women's jobs.
MM Akash, professor of economics of Dhaka University, says despite low wages, jobs at garment factories benefit not only women but also their families and communities. The loss of those jobs, he says, is a bad sign for the country's economy as a whole.
The image of "thousands of female workers hurrying to their shifts at scores of garment factories" symbolises Bangladesh's economic advancement, Akash says. "A decline in the workforce is obviously alarming."
He would like to see the government educating and training female garment workers to help them learn to use the new technology, instead of letting factories simply replace them with men.
"Bangladesh now aspires to become a middle-income country," he says. "In doing so, it needs to empower women more than ever."