Bangladesh is the 2nd highest exporter in the world in terms of RMG or Readymade Garments Exports and it is the highest export earning sector in Bangladesh. The sector employs a total of 4.22 million people, with women accounting for over 60% of the workforce, the highest proportion in South Asia. However, although the majority of the sector is women workers, the number of women in leadership positions is only 1%. There has only been one woman in the president position of the BGMEA since its inception in 1978. Despite being the world’s largest exporter, why are women so underrepresented in Bangladesh’s RMG sector at the leadership level?
Overview of Women Leadership in RMG
In 2020, Bangladesh had a market share of 6.3% of the 1.4 trillion global apparel market. According to BGMEA, the country’s RMG sector contributed about 81.16% of Bangladesh’s total export earnings in FY 2020-21. According to Innovision, there are about 4,000 RMG factories in the country. In addition, there are hundreds of textile, garment, and textile machineries, as well as accessories industries that employ more workers than any other sector of the economy. According to the World Bank, 6.3% of Bangladesh’s total 67 million workforce in 2019 was working in this sector. In addition, 30% of the total workforce in Bangladesh or 20.1 million women workers, of which 12.5%, or about 2.53 million are working in the RMG sector. However, the number of women workers in the RMG sector has been steadily declining over the last few decades and there is almost no participation of women workers in leading positions.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than half of the country’s swing mashing operators are women, but more than 95% of their supervisors are men. In addition, the participation of women workers in higher positions like General Manager, Line Manager, Quality Manager, Production Manager, Head of Merchandiser is also relatively low. According to BGMEA, the country’s RMG sector is still dominated by women, but only 1% of those are in leadership positions.
Why Less Women in Leadership?
The RMG sector in Bangladesh started with the participation of women workers. But since male leadership has dominated the industry since its inception, such a friendly environment for women workers has never been maintained. Later, as the industry began to expand, the participation of women workers in leadership positions did not increase in spite of having a female dominated workforce as most garments did not maintain a proper women friendly environment. Additionally, the garment industry has traditionally been dominated by men, and its management adheres to traditional thinking and customs. In this context, issues like giving preference to men over women workers in the hiring process, interference in decision making of female workers in leadership positions often occur. According to ILO, 20% of women workers in the RMG sector are forced to quit their jobs only because of misconduct by management.
Considering the traditional meditation concepts, the management of most garment factories in Bangladesh believes that male employees are better qualified than the female employees. Management in RMG factories claims female workers lack decision-making autonomy, which wastes valuable time on important decisions. In addition, the workers often do not want to accept the instructions of women supervisors, which hampers the production of the factory.
The management of RMG units does not take any such step to empower women workers from the management to avoid these issues. As a result, most female employees are hired for comparatively lower positions. According to an ILO, 83.8% women workers are employed in lower positions in the sector. Besides that, problems such as overtime duty, working with men and being abused at any time have created a negative perception in the society regarding the sector. ILO data indicates that more than 61% of workers (men and women) in the sector are victims of harassment.
As a result, even family members do not support women working in the RMG sector. According to another report by the ILO, 1 in 3 women working in the RMG sector face social barriers. The other hand, due to increasing pressure from international buyers, a shift in labor law and increased activism for the Violence Against Women Act, there has been a substantial decrease in the mistreatment of women in the RMG sector. As a result, educated female workers have gradually started working in this sector. But even so, women workers are participating only in sections like marketing, finance and human resources. However, it is yet unheard of for women to occupy the top positions in the Core Department, which is the ‘Production Section’ of the sector.
Lack of Work-life Balance
Another reason given by the country’s garment factories for not putting women in leadership roles is that they are unable to maintain a proper work-life balance. Many times, RMG factory employees may have to work longer than office hours. According to the ILO, women in the RMG sector have to work more than 14 hours a day. Due to this, most women find that their families do not provide support they need when it comes to work. Additionally, due to daily working hours and issues such as maternity leave, child & family care, and annual leave, management of garment factories prefers male employees over women for leadership positions.
Less Educational Qualification
Many people in the country have a negative perception towards the RMG sector and the women working in this sector. Due to social stigma and negativity, the participation of educated female workers in this sector is relatively low. According to the ILO, 29.1% of women workers in the RMG sector are poorly educated. In 2020, a survey on Bangladesh’s garment workers showed that most of the workers in the RMG sector have at most a junior school or primary school education, which is even lower for women. Most of these less educated women work in the production section. Many RMG units are interested in recruiting these less educated women since they can work longer hours at cheaper wages. Management is also reluctant to allow women to work in leadership positions due to such gaps in the educational qualifications of female employees with male employees.
Lack of Skills
Although day care and schooling for children is provided in many factories to facilitate the working environment of women in the RMG sector, proper training facilities for women workers play an important role in working in leading positions. Despite management’s good attitude toward women’s training, it lags behind in providing suitable training facilities owing to fears that women may leave their position due to family or personal reasons. However, a number of RMG units are currently arranging various training sessions for women workers to work in higher positions, one of which is ‘Project Bihongo’. This is a ‘360 degree Upskill’ initiative, which is a training process aimed at empowering women in the RMG sector only. However, because the number of such training institutions is still quite low, the number of women employees in leadership roles is still insignificant.
Lack of Role Model
In addition to the various issues in the RMG sector, there is no female role model to motivate women and to attract educated female workers. Former president of the BGMEA, ‘Rubana Huq’ is the only female president in the organization’s 4 decades of existence. It is hoped that this achievement of Rubana Huq will inspire others to participate in the leadership positions of women workers in the future.