The Rise of the Bangladesh Garment Industry:
Globalization, Women Workers, and Voice
NWSA Journal, Bloomington: Summer 2004. Vol.16, Iss2; p34
By Fauzia Ahmed
The Bangladesh garment industry is the largest employer of women in "the formal manufacturing sector". The owners have been described, alternatively, as risk-taking entrepreneurs of a modernizing economy and as oppressors of women in exploitative sweatshops. This article analyzes the literature to explore the social, political, and economic contexts of this class and how women's earnings affect household gender dynamics within a framework of exit and voice. It draws on interviews of these garment factory workers to explore how work has different meanings for workers of different classes and how these perceptions influence gender roles and practices within the household. The conditions of the 1971 war, in fact, created the proto-capitalists, and the post-1975 economic policies of the military regime enabled them to become capitalists. Women from various class backgrounds are employed because they can be molded into compliant workers. The multi-class character of the workforce combined with the threat of layoffs prevents solidarity and makes unionization difficult. Some single women feel empowered by their earnings. Most married women are unable to leverage their income into greater decision making power. But the income is essential for household welfare, and women need these jobs. Policy recommendations involve national and international actors; they emphasize crèches (day care centers), savings, and severance pay at the garment factory level as well as the institution of global living wages and working standards by the International Labour Organization. 1. If globalization provides the backdrop for drama, then the achievements of the garment industry in Bangladesh are indeed dramatic. In the short space of 15 years, Bangladesh emerged as the eighth largest garment exporter to the United States by 1991. Approximately 100 different types of garments are now exported to 50 countries around the globe. A major source of foreign exchange, the garment sector grew at a compound rate of 125 percent from 1977 to 1991 (Wahid and Weiss 1996, 167) and the garment industry provided jobs for women. Almost overnight a labor force of approximately 200,000 young women appeared in Dhaka city (Feldman 1992, 118), the capital of Bangladesh. Cited as evidence of a modern environment that allows talent to make it through sheer effort, the garment industry is now also hailed as the liberator of women. 2. In this article I examine the extent to which these statements, now so often repeated that they have become conventions, are true. Are the garment factory owners talented risk-takers and is their rise evidence that Bangladesh has become a more modern, i.e., a more meritocratic and egalitarian society? Have these garment factories empowered women by giving them jobs? Empowerment is inextricably linked to choice; whether the garment industry has created possibilities of exit and voice (Hirschman 1970) must be examined through this perspective.1 I have drawn on Hirschman's framework in its simplest form: exit means that workers can leave if conditions become unbearable, and voice signifies that workers can protest if there are problems. Because the workers are women, voice also means greater decision-making power within the household. Furthermore, in a globalized economy, firms can exit just as easily (or even more so) as workers. Can the women's garment factory workers exercise either option with impunity? It is also pertinent to ask whether the income gives these women greater voice or decision-making power at home. Given the forces of globalization will these options, even if they can be used, change the way in which the garment factory is organized? 2 My investigation analyzes the historical context and political economy of "the entrepreneur" and the household gender...
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