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Exports, Equity, and Empowerment : The Effects Of Readymade Garments Manufacturing Employment On Gender Equality In Bangladesh

Working paper by Hossain, Naomi, 2011

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Bangladesh has become known as something of a success in advancing gender equity since the 1990s. There have been rapid gains in a number of social and economic domains, yet by most objective standards the current condition and status of women and girls within Bangladeshi society remain low. Rapid progress has come about under conditions of mass poverty and interlocking forms of social disadvantage, political instability and under-development, overlain with prsistent 'classic' forms of patriarchy. This paper assesses the effects of the readymade garments (RMG) employment on women’s empowerment in Bangladesh.




Hossain, Naomi


The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of
the authors. They do not necessarily represent the views of the World Development Report
2012 team, the World Bank and its affiliated organizations, or those of the Executive
Directors of the World Bank or the governments they represent.


Exports, equity and empowerment: the effects of readymade garments manufacturing
employment on gender equality in Bangladesh

WDR background paper
February 2011

Naomi Hossain1


Bangladesh has become known as something of a success in advancing gender equity since the
1990s. There have been rapid gains in a number of social and economic domains, yet by most
objective standards the current condition and status of women and girls within Bangladeshi
society remain low. Rapid progress has come about under conditions of mass poverty and
interlocking forms of social disadvantage, political instability and under-development, overlain
with persistent ‘classic’ forms of patriarchy. Mass employment of women and girls in the
country’s flagship export sector – the readymade garments (RMG) sector – has been one of the
more visible and prominent changes in women’s lives since its late 1970s’ introduction.

Whether and the extent to which RMG or garments employment has changed the lives of
women workers for the better has been the subject of much debate, and the research and
analysis it has generated offers valuable insights into the processes of economic and social
empowerment for poor women in low income developing countries. Yet as this paper notes,
close observers of gendered social change in Bangladesh have become dissatisfied with the
limits of a focus on individualised economic empowerment. Paid work may enable some women
to negotiate the ‘structures of constraint’ that shape their lives and relationships, but what of
the structures of constraint themselves? What has mass, highly visible employment in the
economically central RMG sector meant for recognition of women’s rights and roles within the
care economy and as citizens and political actors within the public sphere? Has it contributed to
a stronger emphasis on the education and skills of women and girls? Has it meant improvements
in women’s public safety and rights to occupy public space? Have there been changes in the
construction of women’s citizenship, so that they are seen as more differentiated, and as
economic agents and not only in a residual maternalist role? And what has the experience of
labour politics meant for women’s political empowerment?

Drawing mainly on the rich literature available on women’s RMG employment, this paper
explores the wider and less well-documented effects of such employment on public policy
relating to gender equity in these areas. It concludes that the overall direction of change in the

Research Fellow, Participation, Power and Social Change Team, Institute of Development Studies. The

author wishes to thank Carolina Sanchez-Paramo and Sudhir Shetty of the World Development Report
Team for comments, Samer Al-Samarrai for insights into the issue of education and skills, and colleagues
at BRAC Development Institute, in particular Ferdous Jahan, Sohela Nazneen and Mamunur Rashid for
work done jointly on women’s empowerment (Nazneen et al 2010; 2011) and on the effects of the food,
fuel and financial crisis (Hossain et al 2009; Hossain et al 2010). The work with BDI colleagues has
generated many of the insights into the wider context of women’s empowerment, and the recent global
economic shocks experienced by garments workers discussed in this paper.


industry points plainly to the need for investments in worker productivity, with a host of
implications for women’s work and gender equality more broadly. Factory owners have to date
shown few signs of recognising that is in their own interests to support better state education
for girls, better public safety for women, and to change their own management practices to
better retain and raise productivity of skilled women workers. Yet with downward pressure on
wages increasingly effectively resisted by workers at a time of global economic recovery with
rising living costs, the tide may now be turning for the RMG workers of Bangladesh.

1. Introduction: the state of women’s empowerment in Bangladesh

This paper is going to try to assess the effects of RMG employment on women’s empowerment
in Bangladesh. To do so, it will start in this section by setting out evidence of change in women’s
lives in Bangladesh, as well as sketching areas of persistent disadvantage and domination. It will
then present perspectives of some key players on what these changes mean for women’s lives,
and in so doing set out some markers for the future direction of analysis of women’s
empowerment in that setting.

The idea of success

Bangladesh has come to be seen as something of a success in promoting gender equity in recent
years. The World Bank’s recent study of gender in Bangladesh summarised the elements as

Bangladesh stands out as the shining new example in South Asia of a poor country
achieving impressive gains in gender equality ... a country that had been famously
written off by Henry Kissinger as a ‘basket case,’ which now dwarfs India and
Pakistan in many areas.

Between 1971 and 2004, Bangladesh halved its fertility rates. In much of the
country today, girls’ secondary school attendance exceeds that of boys. The gender
gap in infant mortality has been closed. The micro-credit revolution continues to
boost women’s solidarity groups and earning potential, and vast numbers of young
women are leaving their villages to work in garment factories where, in earlier
generations, young women were rarely seen outside their homes (World Bank
2008a: 3).

Other donor documents similarly note the important ‘first generation’ achievements made with
respect to gender equality in Bangladesh, typically illustrated with reference to gender parity in
primary and secondary education, Bangladesh’s ‘pioneering’ role in micro-credit, and the RMG
industry in creating formal sector employment for two million poor young women (Nazneen et
al 2011).

The official view is a moderate version of the same. The Government’s recent National Strategy
for Poverty Reduction document noted that ‘*w+omen in Bangladesh have made important gains
along with changes in social attitudes towards women’s economic participation’ (Government of
Bangladesh 2009a: 3). It sets these out as:


*M+easurable progress in women’s advancement and rights in a number of areas
including education, participation in labour force, health and nutrition, and
participation in public services. In the area of women’s advancement and rights, the
government has made strong commitments and undertaken various initiatives to
reduce the gap between men and women (Government of Bangladesh 2009a: 62).

The idea of gender equity success should be read also as a comment on the unpromising context
in which these rapid changes have taken place, as the World Bank reference (wrongly but widely
attributed to Kissinger) to the idea of Bangladesh-as-basket-case makes clear. This remains a
context characterised by chronic mass, severe and interlocking forms of poverty and
disadvantage (Sen and Hulme (eds) 2006); political instability and weak governance (IGS 2006;
2008), and the persistence of ‘classic’ forms of patriarchy.2

The idea that success has been achieved chimes to some extent with perspectives from the
stalwart Bangladeshi women’s movement, who pay the closest attention to women’s
experience on the ground. For them, the 1990s were ‘‘a golden age: a time when there was
scope for raising feminist issues with the state’ at an optimistic time of democratic transition
(Nazneen and Sultan 2010: 70). The pace of progress has slowed compared to the 1990s, and
there are signs that advances can be reversed, particularly with the growing influence of
conservative versions of Islam on national politics and society (ibid.). In the present day, the
mood in the women’s movement and among other observers close to the ground, seems more
cautious, focused on the many serious structural challenges that remain to gender equality, and
on emerging and familiar threats. The women’s movement itself emerged out of the two-part
national struggles for independence, and has a healthy respect for the possibilities of change
through mobilisation and collective action, and extensive experience of negotiating tricky
political terrain. So the feminist struggle continues.

Social indicators

What is the substance of this success, and what are the remaining challenges? In 2010,
Bangladesh ranked 116th in the Gender Inequality Index of the UNDP’s Human Development
Index, below Pakistan’s 112, yet above India’s 122 (UNDP 2010); even within South Asia, then, it
is not apparent that Bangladesh has much to celebrate in terms of the levels of gender equality
(nor, indeed, Pakistan or India). Yet the pace of change merits attention: gains for Bangladeshi
women were made from a lower starting point, and caught up surprisingly fast given the modest
pace of poverty reduction overall, with some of the fastest progress registered in the 1990s.
Table 1 summarises key changes in health and education indicators over the last three decades.

Table 1 Selected changes in Bangladeshi women’s health and education

Indicator Outcome

Fertility Total fertility rate declined from 7.3 (1974) to 2.7 (2007) 1

Kandiyoti’s (1988) term refers in the Bangladesh context to a society characterised by ‘patrilineal

principles of descent, patriarchal structures of family organization, the practice of female seclusion, and a
marked preference for sons over daughters’ (Kabeer 2004: 14).



Maternal mortality ratio (maternal deaths per 100,000 live births) more than
halved from 648 (1986) to 315 (2001) 2


Gender parity in primary and secondary enrolment achieved by early 2000s;
girls now outnumber boys3

1 NIPORT 2009
2 World Bank 2007
3 Chowdhury et al 2002

The most striking changes have been seen with respect to girls’ education. Bangladesh closed
the gender gap in enrolment at primary by the end of the 1990s, ahead of the MDG targets and
many comparator countries (Chowdhury et al 2002). More girls than boys now enrol in
secondary school, drawn in substantial part, it is believed, by the availability of cash stipends for
all unmarried girls who attend and perform to a minimum level (Al-Samarrai 2009). Yet while
Bangladesh has done well compared to other countries in widening girls’ access to school,
quality and attainment for boys and girls are low compared to elsewhere. There are also valid
concerns that the closure of the gender gap in basic education may reflect stagnating
educational access among boys from the poorest households, and not merely gains for girls - the
so-called ‘boys left behind’ phenomena (World Bank 2008a; Shafiq 2009; Tariquzzaman and
Hossain 2009). Despite the promise of the rapid progress of the 1990s, then, Bangladesh’s more
recent performance against MDG indicators has been disappointingly average among less
developed countries.

Economic participation

Patterns of women’s economic participation have changed fast. Women’s labour force
participation rate grew faster than that of men in the 1984-2000 period (Rahman 2005), yet
remained at a low (in comparative perspective) 22.8 per cent in 2000 (25.6 in urban areas). This
pattern continued in the first half of the 2000s, with the 2005 Household Income and
Expenditure Survey finding that while the labour force as a whole had grown modestly,
women’s wage employment increased considerably over the five year period, growing at 4.3 per
cent each year between 2000 and 2005 (World Bank 2008b; see also Figure 1).

Figure 1. Labour force participation rates for men and women, 1999-2000 and 2005-6


Source: Labour Force Survey 1999-2000; 2005-06 (BBS 2002; 2008)

In relation to girls’ increased access to education it is worth noting that official figures suggest
that participation rates for younger women (aged 15 to early 20s) actually declined during this
period. This may suggest that more women in this age group were seeking higher education in
preference to early entry into the low-skilled end of the workforce. This would be consistent
with the finding that the gender wage gap narrowed at the upper end in the first half of the
2000s, as the result of higher educated women gaining access to employment, particularly in the
public sector (Al-Samarrai 2007). This narrowing reversed the pattern of change over the second
half of the 1990s, in which the share of women’s formal sector employment shrank from 20.8
(1995-96) to 8.9 (1999-2000) per cent (Rahman 2005). The result of this shift has been that
women’s wages increased much faster than men’s over the first half of the 2000s, and the
gender gap in income and wages narrowed considerably, particularly at the upper end of the
occupation hierarchy (Al-Samarrai 2007). This was substantially to do with the change in the
composition of the top end of the female labour force: for women in the richest 20 per cent, for
instance, 58 per cent had been in salaried work (e.g., skilled public sector employment) and 26
per cent self-employed in agriculture in 2000; these proportions changed to 76 per cent in
salaried work and only 3 per cent self-employed in agriculture in 2005 (Al-Samarrai 2007).

A critical factor in the narrowing of the gender wage gap appears to have been gains in
education (see table 2). However, as recent real wage and income gains for women have been
concentrated among the more educated and typically more affluent population, there will have
been more limited impacts for poor women. And despite these gains for women who have
succeeded in catching up with men educationally, on average, women continue to earn 21 per
cent less per hour than men (Kapsos 2008). A considerable proportion of the gender wage gap
remains explained by simple discrimination, as well as by labour market segmentation that


ensures women are excluded from better-paid occupations (Ahmed and Maitra 2010; Kapsos

Table 2 Years of education in the labour force by quintile 2000-5

quintile 2000 2005

male Female total male female total

1 1.6 0.6 1.4 2.0 1.4 1.9

2 2.2 1.2 2.1 2.7 1.5 2.6

3 3.0 1.7 2.9 3.7 3.1 3.7

4 4.5 3.4 4.4 5.3 4.7 5.3

5 7.7 6.8 7.6 8.6 8.4 8.5

Total 3.9 2.7 3.8 4.6 4.0 4.5

Source: Al-Samarrai 2007 based on HIES data

Some 60 per cent of the increase in women’s paid work during the 2000s was concentrated in
urban areas, half overall in manufacturing sectors. Over two million women are estimated to be
employed in the RMG industry, which dominates the Bangladesh manufacturing export sector.
Given that garment factory careers may be short, many more than the current two million
women are likely to have experienced factory work, a fact which is overlooked when considering
how widely the social effects of RMG employment may have been shared. There has also been
significant recent growth in new areas such as public sector employment as teachers or health
workers, and in self-employment and household enterprises, often in relation to deliberate
public policy measures to recruit women in order to better advance gender equity goals in the
key social sectoral areas of health, education, fertility control and poverty reduction.

An older, much-debated pathway of women’s economic empowerment has been micro-credit,
in which the scale of Bangladeshi women’s collective participation has been unprecedented.
Micro-finance programmes for women expanded fast from the second half of the 1990s; by
2006, it was estimated that there were some 16.4 million micro-credit borrowers in Bangladesh,
the overwhelming majority of them women (World Bank, 2006). Debates about the impacts of
micro-credit on women’s empowerment have rehearsed themes around control over resources
and the effects on women’s domestic bargaining power (Goetz and Sen Gupta 1996; Kabeer
1999). Despite a considerable and enduring scepticism about the benefits of micro-finance
among a wide range of Bangladeshi scholars, there has been a strong emphasis within domestic
development debates on the effectiveness of micro-credit in reducing vulnerability and to some
extent poverty. By 2006, the World Bank was able to cite evidence that participation in micro-
finance programmes enabled discussion of family planning with spouses, an expanded role in
household decision making, more access to ‘financial, economic, and social resources’ and
greater mobility (2006: 24). In relation to intra-household relations and women’s economic
empowerment, the 2007 Demographic and Health Survey found that while fewer women were
reporting making decisions about the use of their income alone than in 2004 (from 39 to 31 per
cent), the proportion of women claiming involvement in joint decision making had risen, from
47 to 56 per cent (NIPORT, 2009). There are some good reasons to believe that Bangladeshi
gender relations have experienced a shift in economic roles, and that micro-credit has played


some part in that. With more recent concerns about micro-credit reaching market saturation
and creating problems of serial indebtedness attentions have now shifted to the problem faced
of the problem of too much, as opposed to too little, access to finance.

Political participation and security

In contrast to their striking gains in human development and new economic opportunities, and
despite the two top political leaders both being women, Bangladeshi women have fared far less
well with respect to their political participation at the centre than women in comparator
countries (see figure 2).

Figure 2 Proportion of seats held by women in national parliament, 1990-2009

Source: UNSTATS UN Millennium Development Goals Indicators

The provision of reserved seats has ensured 30 per cent representation of women in local and
national government, but few women have won party endorsement to contest general seats. In
the last parliamentary election, 17 women won in general seats – by far the highest figure in all
parliamentary elections to date (the previous record being 8 in 2001, suggesting an upward
trend from an abysmally low starting point (Pandey 2008)). Many women candidates are,
however, believed to be proxies contesting on behalf of disqualified or jailed male family
members, typically husbands. All political parties have delayed introducing direct elections to
the reserved seats in Parliament, since these seats are valuable patronage resources,
particularly during coalition negotiations.

In terms of women’s access to justice and security, the most persistent concern is about the
prevalence of violence against women. The most recent DHS data indicate that 49 per cent of
ever-married women had experienced some spousal physical violence in their most recent
marriage; 18 per cent had experienced rape within marriage; 53 per cent had experienced some
form of physical and/or sexual violence, while 13 per cent had experienced both (NIPORT 2009:


201). While the evidence does not indicate violence against women has increased over time,3
evidence from the WHO (2005) multi-country study and other research indicates that
Bangladeshi society suffers from a particularly high prevalence of violence against women
(Naved et al 2006). A series of different sources have arrived at similar estimates of the
prevalence of domestic violence, including that between 40 per cent and half of all women
experience violence from husbands in their life time, with the proportion rising to two-thirds
among poorer groups; in addition, just under one-fifth of married women of reproductive age
(16-19 per cent) experienced current or recent violence from husbands (cited in Naved and
Persson 2010).

Changing society: post-conflict gender relations, dowry, violence and the feminisation of public

The larger social backdrop to the above changes in women’s lives was that of the dislocation to
gender norms associated with the war in 1971 and the post-conflict period. This period was
catastrophic for many hundreds of thousands of families, so much so that the destruction of old
certainties and customs may well have primed gender relations for the rapid social and
economic change that followed.4 This was a period in which the assurances of male protection
under the ‘patriarchal bargain’ became shakier. The account of one early entrant into the RMG
industry illustrates the situation in which many women found themselves in the postwar period:

During the [1971] troubles, my husband and father were murdered by the razakars
… My son was just over a year old then. We never found their bodies … My mother
and sister died of illness. I had two brothers, one drowned and the other died of
illness. All of them are dead … I have no one left (in Kabeer 2000: 102).

An estimated 30,000 women were raped during the war,5 and many more experienced trauma,
displacement, and the loss of fathers, brothers, husbands and sons (Kabeer 2000). Women had
themselves been prominent within the nationalist struggle – a formative experience for
important sections of the women’s movement. Yet the most significant state response was to
rewrite the patriarchal bargain as one between (victimised) women and the state through the
‘birangona’ programme intended to socially rehabilitate the women raped during the war by
declaring them war heroines and arranging marriages for them (Kabeer 1991a). As Mookherjee
notes ‘the kinship norms of purity and honour were articulated in a public discourse that made
[the women who had been raped] the concerns not merely of the family or the community but
also of the new nation’ (2008: 40). Arguably we see in this first action an appropriation of the
responsibility to act on behalf of women whose victimhood brought them directly within the
jurisdiction of the state. It was soon after that the state began to experiment with social
protection for women through the Vulnerable Group Development programme; it seems likely

Focus group discussions about domestic violence as part of research for the World Bank’s gender survey

did not indicate a perceived rise in domestic violence (World Bank 2008a: 92). It seems likely that the
efforts of the women’s movement to draw attention to this as an issue have borne fruit to the extent that
it receives more attention and is spoken of as a problem, in contrast to the past.
War frequently involves sharp shifts in gender relations and related public policy (see Moghadam 2003).

Other figures range between 300,000 and 500,000, highlighting how little was known – and very likely,

done – for these women.


that these shifts in the treatment of poor women by the state are related. The VGD was an
innovation in its time, for among other reasons it targeted destitute women directly, rather than
operating through male household heads (Hossain 2007). This could be reasonably interpreted
as marking official recognition that the patriarchal bargain had broken down en masse for its
most vulnerable citizens, and that it was mandated to act.

The rupture of the patriarchal bargain meant many women were in the position of having to
support themselves. The famine and wider economic crisis that followed the war in the mid-
1970s produced growing evidence that women were seeking paid work outside the home ‘in the
face of considerable resistance from family and community’ which still assumed a norm of
female seclusion (Kabeer 2000: 65). The combination of women without male protection, acute
poverty and deprivation and high fertility rates meant the country was ‘a ripe field’ for
positioning women at the centre of development as beneficiaries and ‘targets’ (Azim 2001: 392).

Predating the war, longer-term processes of landlessness, impoverishment and new
employment opportunities for educated men were also effecting the economic resources of
women. These processes drove a reversal of marriage payments from the gifts to the bride’s
family (customary till the 1950s) towards payments to the groom’s family – dowry or as is more
commonly used, dabi (literally, ‘demand’) (Kabeer 2000). The persistent strength of the norm of
universal and early marriage, particularly for women, means that dowry has become a
significant burden across sections of society. This seems to be particularly true among poor
households with many daughters. Recent research found that around 53 per cent of rural
households and 14 per cent of urban households reported facing dowry demands (Naved and
Persson 2010, based on 2001 data). It also seems clear that dowry demands are relatively more
common among poorer people, with 61 per cent of rural women in the poorest quintile facing
demands compared to 37 per cent in the top quintile; comparable urban figures were 20 per
cent for the lowest and 7 per cent in the top quintile (ibid. pp. 841). Dowry or demand is a
strikingly common source of discontent and insecurity for the poor which has to date eluded any
effective regulation.

Amin argues that the necessity of marriage amidst a ‘powerful perception of insecurity and risk
of sexual violation of girls living in households without a male guardian’ (1997: 230) coupled
with the demands of dowry leave the poorest women vulnerable to marriages in which there is
‘no obligation on the part of the man to support his wife’ (ibid.) ‘Dowry violence’, including
murders, immolations, suicide and other forms of violence has become categorised as a specific
policy problem in the popular media and is referenced within official discourse, as well as being
strictly against the law (references in Government of Bangladesh 2009a: 10-11, 62-3). Public
opinion and public safety surveys now routinely return ‘dowry’ among the most pressing social
issues of the day. The 1999 Bangladesh study for the World Bank’s Voices of the Poor study
consistently identified dowry as among men and women’s key concerns in relation to poverty
and gender relations (Nabi et al 1999). A 2007 survey of human security found that some 56 per
cent of respondents listed ‘dowry’ as among the crimes and insecurities they worried about
most, second only to personal property crimes at 77 per cent (Saferworld 2008).

A final aspect of the wider social backdrop against which women’s lives are being lived in 21st
century Bangladesh is the feminisation of public space, a much-commented on change
exemplified by the visible urban fact of young women garments workers en masse en route to
work. Other symbols of this feminisation of public space include the presence of large numbers


of young girls going to school and college in rural areas and upazilas and small towns, as well as
the by-now familiar figure of women NGO staff, some on motorcycles and bicycles, others
walking or using public transport. Many wear head coverings of various kinds and styles, but by
no means all do at all times, highlighting that this remains a matter of choice for women in
Bangladesh. BRAC women staff have innovated an outfit which resembles a cross between a lab
coat and burkah; this denotes their official and professional status without requiring that they
cover their heads. A mobile phone billboard in 2011 features a confident smiling young woman
cycling down a sun-dappled country lane – a gulf away from earlier imageries of women. We will
look more at what this claiming of the right to move in public space has meant for gender
relations in Bangladesh in relation to garments work more below. It should be noted that the
immense cultural significance of women having gained access to the public sphere will be lost
on anyone who does not remember as far back as the 1980s.

Empowerment revisited

It is against this backdrop that the contribution of women’s RMG employment to women’s
empowerment is to be assessed. A recent analysis of the meaning of women’s empowerment
among key actors in Bangladesh concluded that the focus was predominantly on individual and
economic empowerment, and that this was at the cost of more collective and more political
forms of power. In common with other recent analyses of the meaning of women’s
empowerment within development globally, the paper concluded that the understanding of
women’s empowerment was a neutered idea of power as ‘choice’. In particular, it excluded
recognition of the central importance of women’s political and collective empowerment in
achieving fuller forms of gender equality.6 Apart from the Bangladeshi women’s movement, the
key actors studied – NGOs, donors, political parties - all to greater or lesser degrees featured a
‘residual instrumentalism’ in their view of the pathways to gender equity in Bangladesh
(Nazneen et al 2011).

The perspective from the women’s movement, by contrast, was of a more multi-dimensional
understanding of the kind of power women need to gain in order to secure their rights on a
lasting basis, and not merely to the extent that this serves the interests of the nation more
generally. This included, in addition to individual women’s agency and economic empowerment,
recognition of the need for collective and political empowerment, so as to jointly shift the
‘structures of constraint’ (Folbre 1994; Kabeer 1997) within which all women operate. The paper
concluded that inadequate and potentially reversible progress towards gender equality in
Bangladesh required tackling the structural political, institutional and cultural changes that mark
the ‘second generation’ challenges to Bangladeshi women’s progress. These have not often
come into view as critical determinants of empowerment to date.

In an effort to contribute to the widening of the debate about the empowerment of women in
Bangladesh, the analysis in this paper proposes to explore the effects of the RMG across the
domains of women’s empowerment, looking at not only the individual and economic forms of
power that women have gained, but also the more explicitly feminist concerns of collective and
political power. It will do so by outlining the effects of RMG employment on women’s
citizenship, access to basic education, rights to public space, and political empowerment.

For example Batliwala 2007; Cornwall et al 2008; Eyben and Napier-Moore 2009.


2. The RMG sector

Before any analysis of its effects on women can be undertaken, some background to the RMG
sector is necessary. Instead of a full history of the emergence and growth of the sector, which is
available from any number of sources,7 we focus here on the contemporary economic, political
and social significance of the RMG sector. The history of the RMG sector in Bangladesh
resembles that of most low income country expansions into export manufacturing with the
global restructuring of the garments trade, enabled by trade liberalisation and low labour costs,
with some local variants. Several features of the growth and development of the RMG sector are
worth noting, however. It emerged initially in response to the Multifibre Arrangement (MFA) in
1974, which set quotas on garments exports from the newly industrialising countries of Asia,
and encouraged ‘quota-hopping’ as entrepreneurs sought to establish manufacturing sites in
quota-free sites. The Korean firm Daewoo was an early entrant in Bangladesh, when it came to
an agreement with a Bangladeshi firm, Desh Garments, to which it trained and provided
equipment (Kabeer and Mahmud 2004). Nationally, economic reform processes were also in
train from the early 1980s to reverse the socialist and state-directed thrust of economic policy,
abandoning import substitution industrial policies in favour of promoting export-led growth.
This was most marked under the National Industrial Policy in 1982, which set up incentives and
support for foreign direct investment, including through export processing zones (EPZs) (Kabeer
and Mahmud 2004; Kochanek 1993).

The 1990s saw more incentives for RMG investment, encouraging the growth of more locally-
owned firms (Bhattacharya and Rahman 2000). Early on, domestic entrepreneurs fairly typically
drew on their client networks in their home areas to mobilise their initial workforce. There was a
paternalistic aspect to some of this, as the factory owner essentially undertook the protection of
women workers from these areas (Kabeer 2000). It seems clear from early on that the strategy
of employing women aimed to circumvent the possibility of labour organisation, as the chief
lesson from the state-owned enterprises was that this made it impossible to run a profitable
business. Women were seen as likely to be docile, and this, with the extreme cheapness of their
labour made an emphasis on women’s employment more likely (Kabeer 2000). An idea that
tailoring was in some sense customarily or at least appropriately women’s work may have
contributed to the acceptability of what was in effect, tailoring, among the middle classes. But
as a factor explaining why more conservative rural households accepted girls’ garments work
has not generally been accepted by a number of leading scholars in the field, who note that
tailoring is a traditionally male occupation in rural Bangladesh. One issue that would merit
attention here is the role of public policy in this shift to women’s industrial employment. It
seems likely that female RMG employment had no important opponents and many potential
beneficiaries so that whether or not public policy was supportive, it did not obviously deter
women’s employment, even at a time when the polity was as a whole shifting towards a more
Islamic version of the state in Ershad’s 1980s, as was clear from the constitutional amendments
made at this time.

On the origins and development of the RMG sector, see Bhattacharya and Rahman 1999; Kabeer 2000:

69-76; Khundker 2002; Rock 2003; Siddique 2003; Khatun et al 2007; Rahman et al 2009; Morshed 2007.


Despite employers’ concerns about male workers, the knitwear industry has grown rapidly on
the basis of a considerably more male workforce. The implications of the changing gender and
skills of the export labour force have not been very thoroughly considered to date. Yet it seems
clear that this changing composition should have made the establishment of more constructive
worker-owner-state relationships a far more urgent matter than it has proven to be.

The economic significance of the RMG sector

It is difficult to overstate the contemporary significance of the RMG sector in Bangladesh’s
development. With 1.9 million workers directly employed in the sector (Ahmed 2009), it
employs only around 4 per cent of the total labour force of 51.8 million, over one-third of the
5.3 million in manufacturing employment (Rahman, Moazzem and Hossain 2009). Yet some 76
per cent of all export earnings were from apparel in 2008-9 (MoF 2009, chapter 6), and a 2002
estimate was that the RMG sector contributed some 10 per cent of GDP (Bhattacharya, Rahman
and Raihan 2002).

Its central significance for the national economy means its continued growth has been a major
concern of public policy. The industry has faced several challenges, but to date has proven to be
remarkably adaptive to its global market environment. The episodes include the US Harkin Bill
to prevent use of child labour in the early 1990s, the shock to global trade which hit exports to
the US (a major market for Bangladeshi garments) after 9/11 (see Siddique 2003; Ward et al
2004); and the end of the favourable Multi Fibre Arrangement in 2005, which exposed
Bangladesh’s sector to more competition, including from China (Ahmed 2009).

More recently, the sector has recovered remarkably buoyantly from the global downturn of
2008-10. It did not go untouched: garments exports contracted substantially in the first half of
the 2009-10, but this was compared to unprecedentedly rapid growth the previous year. The
industry was hit somewhat less and later than export sectors elsewhere, very likely because the
Bangladeshi industry benefited (in order volumes) from downward pressure on prices – the so-
called ‘Wal-Mart effect’ (Rahman, Bhattacharya et al 2009; CPD 2011). But the idea that the
sector’s continued success depends solely on ‘a race to the bottom’, and rests on Bangladesh’s
continued capacity to compete amidst downward wage pressures now lacks credibility. One
reason is that a process of restructuring is already happening, and there is evidence of
improvements in compliance and management practices to raise worker productivity in the
modern sections of the industry (Rahman et al 2007; MoF 2009; CPD 2011). There are signs that
these improved managerial and compliance practices are enabling investments in worker
productivity, helping factories cope with the uncertainties of export production in Bangladesh
(political and labour unrest, transport, energy and other infrastructural bottlenecks).

Other changes afoot include new Rules of Origin that may be opening up new opportunities in
the European market and the expansion of the Asian market for Bangladeshi garments. Changes
to the Indian trade regime may also favour RMG exports from Bangladesh, as should the global
economic recovery more generally (CPD 2011).

The political significance of the RMG sector


The economic significance of the RMG sector within the Bangladeshi economy is accompanied
growing significance as a particularly well-organised and unified interest group. It is worth
noting that the RMG owners of the 1970s and 1980s were mainly first generation entrepreneurs
drawn from the professional middle classes – most notably engineers and civil servants, as well
some early garment factory managers and technicians (see Kabeer and Mahmud 2004). The
growth of the RMG and the establishment of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and
Exporters Association (the BGMEA) and later the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and
Exporters Association (BKMEA) marked the first real entry of organised business interests (as
distinct from more particularistic interests) within the Bangladeshi polity. Business in the region
had historically been dominated by non-Bengali Muslims prior to Independence, so that the
RMG owners collectively represented the emergence of a distinct Bangladeshi entrepreneurial
class (see Sobhan and Sen 1988; Kochanek 1993). Most notably through the BGMEA, business
interests began to organise for political influence through the 1990s (see Kochanek 1996 and
2000). It is also significant that an increasing proportion of national politicians are drawn from
business, replacing the mainly urban professional middle class politicians from the
independence era (see Khan et al 1996; IGS 2006). While a figure for the number of RMG
owners among the business people in parliament is not available, the prominence of garments
manufacturing within the business sector as a whole in Bangladesh suggests that it is likely that
many have personal interests or close connections with the industry.

Persistent infrastructural bottlenecks (problems of electricity, gas, transport, the Chittagong
Port) underpinned by problems of governance (grand and petty corruption, slow procurement
and investment, labour unrest and political violence) plague the lead times of garments
exports.8 This suggests that the BGMEA has the potential to act as a lobbying power for the
greater good, in relation to energy supply and infrastructural investment more generally. Yet the
optimism that the relatively powerful BGMEA, with its high degree of insulation from national
politics afforded by its position as lead exporter (IGS 2006), might exert positive pressures on
economic governance has not to date been realised.

Instead, where the BGMEA has weighed in on governance concerns, it has mainly attempted to
further insulate the industry from them, rather than forcing a political settlement on improved
governance of wider public benefit. An example is the political parties’ concession to exempt
garments factories from hartal (the all-out strikes that are the main weapon of the political
opposition within Bangladeshi politics) in the 1990s, which in theory should have permitted
export production to continue unhindered.9 More notably, the BGMEA has been relatively
successful in attracting special concessions and incentives. This was illustrated most clearly in
the fiscal stimulus response to the global financial crisis as it began to unfold in Bangladesh in
2009. Compared to the primary exporters, the early phase of the crisis saw the RMG sector
affected through dropping garment prices globally, but saw order volumes rise with the ‘Wal-
Mart effect’. The sector felt excluded from the first fiscal stimulus package of $488 million in

Bhattacharya and Rahman (2000) note that partly because of the need to import raw materials, lead

times in RMG manufacture in Bangladesh are some 120-150 days, compared to only 19-45 days in Sri
Lanka, and 12 in India.
Although factory owners said that transporting goods remained an issue, and so the exemption was

ultimately toothless. But it explains why so many vehicles on Dhaka streets at this time carried signs
explaining that they were engaged in ‘urgent export work’, to signal their exclusion from potential
political violence.


April 2009, and lobbied successfully for more support as garments export growth declined in the
first half of the 2009-2010 financial year (Rahman et al 2010). But it was not until the third
stimulus package that the RMG sector’s lobbying bore fruit with a wide-ranging set of incentives
to help the industry through the crisis, focused on cash incentives and easing the costs of
business (MoF 2009).

However, efforts to attract more direct compensation by demanding government cash to pay
wages and Eid bonuses in 2009 were embarrassingly shot down, with the Government
dismissing industry warnings that without help with paying wages and bonuses labour unrest
would result, citing statistics showing the sector’s continued profitability. The BGMEA denied
trying to blackmail the government, and as the leading English language newspaper put it, was
forced to eat ‘humble stimulus pie’.10

The limits to the political clout of the BGMEA are becoming increasingly clear, for two reasons.
One is that it is widely believed that since the 2000s, the leadership of the sector has become
more closely aligned to party interests. This may ensure greater access to the seats of power,
but it also compromises its autonomy with respect to public policy. 11 The second may be equally
important, and this is the limits on the political influence of the BGMEA from what appears to be
widespread popular sympathy with the RMG workers’ longstanding struggle for decent (and
regular) wages. This is a complicated issue that merits far more sustained attention than it has
received to date. Several aspects of the popular perception of this struggle merit attention. The
first is that for many within the business elite, wage struggles and rights of labour to organise
spell the doom of the industry, as organised labour is seen to have captured key (mainly public
sector) industries in the past. There is a marked tendency among the RMG owner classes to
detect the outside hand of economically powerful regional neighbours seeking to sabotage this
nationally important sector, with much dark reference to ‘vested quarters’ and outside actors
manipulating otherwise compliant workers. Such views are dismissive of the workers’ struggle.
In the popular and middle class perspective, however, the gap between the conspicuous
consumption of the garments-owning classes and the pitiful pay packets of these young workers
has become a glaring inequality. Sympathetic literary, journalistic and other depictions of
Bangladeshi garment workers may have heightened this awareness (see also Kabeer and
Mahmud 2004).12 While there may be little middle class support for worker violence, there is
certainly widespread awareness within this group of the rising cost of living since the mid-2000s.
As food prices rose and spiked in 2008 (and are nearly as high again in early 2011) the issue of
low wages emerged and has remained a serious concern with which all urban people can agree
(Hossain et al 2009; Hossain et al 2010).

Governments have responded in a series of ways since 2006. Efforts by the state to put down
protests have achieved little. The introduction of the Industrial Police is part of the effort to
prevent unrest, although workers generally report that organisation more generally is
repressed. The priorities of the state with respect to garment workers is highlighted by this
innovation, which was not intended to police worker behaviour, rather than to protect workers


‘BGMEA eats humble stimulus pie’, 8 September 2009, The Daily Star.

This insight arises from interviews conducted with garments factory owners including some active
within the BGMEA, as part of a multi-donor country governance assessment in 2010.

For example, Monica Ali’s slightly controversial Brick Lane, itself inspired by research by Naila Kabeer
(The Power to Choose, 2000).


against the harassment and abuse they routinely face in and en route to work (Siddiqi 2003).
The present Awami League Government has to date been more responsive to the garment
workers’ demands than some previous regimes, and the minimum wage was fixed at Tk 3000 in
2009. Yet the struggle continues in some sections of the growing RMG labour movement, with
claims for a Tk 5000 minimum wage now being argued for (refs). While the present campaign
dates at least to the May 2006 incidents which involved violence, arson and criminal damage,
violent actions continue within the sector, reinforcing the need for more regular channels of
labour-industry dialogue and policy-making processes.

3. Women as RMG workers

We turn now to women’s experiences as RMG workers. This section will explore two apparently
contradictory issues about women’s garment work experience. The first is the tough and
exploitative nature of garments work; such work has always been tough - physically demanding
and featuring unsafe conditions of fire risks, sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse.
By virtue of their gender, women typically enter the industry on terms of comparative
disadvantage in terms of pay, conditions and promotion prospects. Irregular wage, overtime and
bonus payments have long been and remain one of the most significant problems workers face
in the industry. All of this has meant that until recently, few women garments workers stayed
longer than five years, with their garments career usually overlapping with their pre- and early
marriage lives. Most women find it difficult to balance care work with garments employment,
which involves long working days and unpredictable over-time; facilities for childcare are rare,
as is return to work within the same factory after maternity.

Yet the hard nature of garments work appears to be contradicted by the second issue about
women’s RMG employment which is that despite its hardship, women and girls who have
worked in the sector have experienced a range of forms of social and economic empowerment
as a result of that work. The important issue here is that these findings highlight the relative
advantages afforded by RMG employment within the context of women’s limited labour market
opportunities in Bangladesh.

Hard work

Women make up the majority of workers in the RMG sector as a whole, with most recent
estimates suggesting that up to 1.7 million women are employed in the sector at present
(Ahmed 2009).13 The gender composition of the apparels sector workforce has changed in
recent years, with the growth of the knitwear industry which employs more men. That knitwear
manufacturing is seen as ‘men’s work’ has been linked to the belief that women are less capable
of the physical and skill demands of the machinery used in knitwear and sweater production.
Women and girl workers are concentrated in the woven RMG sector, in which the gendered


It may be a feature of the informality of the industry that reliable up-to-date worker data is hard to
come by for the RMG sector. Estimates of the proportion of women workers in the sector vary widely,
from 66 (Paul-Majumder and Begum 2000) to 90 percent (Ahmed 2009). Given the growing importance of
the knitwear industry and its predominantly male workforce within the RMG sector as a whole, the lower
figure is likely to be closer to the truth in the present day.


pattern of the occupation structure is that senior management, supervisors and occupations
seen as skilled technicians (e.g., cutters, finishers) tend to be men; most machine operators and
helpers are women and girls. Siddiqi’s account summarises how the hierarchy of production is

Production is divided into three main tasks – cutting, sewing and finishing. A
production manager (PM), almost always male, is in charge of the entire production
process from cutting to shipment, and reports only to the managing director. The
cutting section is supervised by a male master cutter (cutting master) under whom
other cutters and helpers, all male, work. The responsibility of overseeing the entire
sewing section is in the hands of the floor-in-charge, as he or she is called. The
floor-in-charge of sewing is preferably a woman, ‘so that the workers will feel
comfortable bringing their problems to her’. Almost three quarters of the line
supervisors in the sewing section are men … The sewing machine operators and
helpers are predominantly female, around 80 per cent. In the finishing section, the
floor-in-charge is always male, as are line supervisors and those who do the ironing.
Folding is done by men and women. Male workers do the packaging and cartoning
(2000: L-13).

The powerful nature of gender segmentation within the RMG industry means that women who
do jobs that are seen as more skilled – and therefore as ‘men’s’ jobs – can be ashamed of their
‘unfeminine work’ (Kabeer 1991b). Most recent survey data suggests that while gendered
occupation segregation remains an issue, it is less acute in the more ‘modern’ EPZs than in the
non-EPZ factories (see Table 3).

Table 3. Gender division of RMG jobs (% of workers)


Men Women Men Women

Operator 70 54.5 54.5 77.3

Helper 20 27.3 - 4.5

Packer - - - 6.8

Other 10 18.2 45.5 11.4

All 100 100 100 100

Source: CPD/GATE survey, in Khatun et al 2007

Gender segregation within the RMG occupation hierarchy is reflected in gender wage
differentials. The CPD/GATE survey found that wage differentials remained significant (indeed,
they appeared to have increased over time) in the RMG industry, with women machinists or
operators earning only 71 per cent of the earnings of men operators; female helpers earned a
mere 53 per cent of male helpers’ earnings in 2005. Only in ‘other’ categories of work – ironing,
folding, cleaning and packing – were gender differentials slightly in favour of women (103 per
cent) (Khatun et al 2007: 42). Yet promotion prospects were generally dim for most women
workers (Chaudhuri Zohir and Paul-Majumder 1996). Analysis indicates that simple
discrimination explained part of the wage differential and that the wage gap may have increased
over time (see also Paul-Majumder and Begum 2000; 2006; Paul-Majumder 2003). This is


despite the fact that skill differentials tend to explain more of the gender wage differentials in
the RMG than in other sectors (Ahmed and Maitra 2010; Kapsos 2008; Uddin 2008). However,
despite the evidence that simple gender discrimination affects wage differentials, sectoral
actors such as business leaders, policymakers and trade unionists, the idea that skill differentials
entirely explain women’s lower pay appears to persist (see CPD 2007).

Garments work has not been a career for most women who have worked in it. Women tend to
be young when they work in the garments, and in the 1990s lasted an average of four years
(Paul-Majumder 1996). However, there are some signs of change. The average age of women
garment workers appears to have risen since the 1990s, from 19 in 1990 to 25 in 2006 (Khatun
et al 2007). The proportion of married women also increased, from 38 per cent in 1990 and
1997, to 59 per cent in the 2006 CPD/GATE survey (Khatun et al 2007). Yet the overall pattern
remains of a very young female workforce (60 per cent under 25 in the CPD/GATE survey
(Khatun et al 2007; see also CPD 2007).

It is also the case that factory work has not provided stable, respectable industrial jobs, although
EPZ employment comes closer to that ideal. Export sector factory work under the New
International Division of Labour needs to be situated on the continuum between formal and
informal work (Kabeer and Mahmud 2004b). The labour contract is certainly an informalised and
fluid arrangement between factories and workers, enabled in part by the absence of
recruitment costs in a context of no training and a steady supply of adequately schooled and
‘unencumbered’ labour. Demands for identification cards and contract letters and other
formalising aspects commonly feature among the demands of garment workers, who see these
as tools with which to strengthen their unevenly honoured claims to wages, overtime and

Other reasons these are not the ‘good working class jobs’ of the social democratic imagination
include issues of worker safety. Factory fires occur regularly, despite the provision of fire
escapes and safety equipment having been made mandatory and among buyers’ compliance
requirements. Many young workers have died because of being locked inside to prevent theft of
materials or to meet deadlines. In a particularly tragic recent event, a large, established factory
caught fire in December 2010, and 26 people died – 23 from jumping out of the 11th floor
windows - and around 100 people were injured.14 In one estimate, some 60 per cent of garment
factories continue to lack fire safety equipment,15 despite extensive and growing pressure for
factories to comply with social and labour requirements.

Garments work is also so physically demanding that few people can last more than a few years.
Chaudhuri Zohir and Paul-Majumder found a higher incidence of illness among women workers
than among men. These ranged from eye and head pains, to respiratory and gastric conditions
and urine infections (1996). The high turnover rate of workers was attributed partly to
‘sustained exhaustion from work’ (pp. 101), a finding that other research has corroborated.

An important but typically neglected aspect of the lack of safety at work is that factories and
routes to work can be significant sites of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse,
consistent with the fact that paid work outside the house remains an anomaly, albeit an


‘26 killed in factory fire’, The Daily Star. December 15, 2010.

‘How long will garments factories remain death traps?’ The Daily Star, March 6 2010.


increasingly common one. While verbal and other forms of abuse within factories were found to
negatively affect the productivity of almost half of surveyed workers, such practices appear to
be widespread (see Siddiqi 2003). Yet as table 4 suggests, sexual harassment and others sources
of threats to personal security are actually more common during travel to and from than in the
workplace, although some workers also feel insecure at home, particularly if they live in ‘mess’
arrangements (Chaudhuri Zohir and Paul-Majumder 1996). Siddiqi cites a 2002 media survey
which found media reports of 51 rapes of working women in the first half of the year, 31 of
whom were garments workers (2003). The characteristics of export manufacturing employment
in Bangladesh – late working hours, inadequate transport and insecurity in the commute
between work and home – create the conditions under which sexual harassment and sexual
violence thrive. The 2000 Violence against Women and Children Act included reference to sexual
harassment for the first time (ibid.).

Table 4. Workers’ reports of incidents that contribute to insecurity (% of workers)

Incident Experienced by self Experienced by colleagues

Men Women Men Women

Beating in factory 3.3 5.9 6.5 5.6

Rape in factory - 0.2 - 2.1

Attacked by mastaan

9.8 4.5 - 10

Got afraid in the street 7.3 14.3 5.7 7.7

Harassed in the street 6.1 19 - 21.5

Harassed by police 2 1.4 2 1.9

Raped in street - - 3.3 4

Fear of theft 2.9 4.9 - -

Got afraid at home 1.6 4 - -

Source: Chaudhuri Zohir and Paul-Majumder (1996); pp. 95

As Siddiqi also notes, it is crucial to recognise and act on harassment and abuse without
assuming that women are victims in need of saving from garments work (2003; 2009). Women
workers have developed a wide ranging of coping strategies in response to the harassment and
abuse they face, and these include effective tactics for resisting such treatment (Siddiqi 2003;
Dannecker 1999).

Strategies for resisting the abuses and exploitation of garments workers have begun to coalesce
in labour mobilisation. It is unfortunately the case that there is relatively little recent literature
on labour organisation in the RMG sector other than newspaper reports, so that a proper
analysis or even a full sketch of the activities and alignments of different labour organisations is
beyond the paper’s scope. Industry insiders believe that unrest in the sector since 2006 is linked
to the rising proportion of male workers in the flourishing knitwear sector. While this may be an
important factor, it is also the case that women are involved, and in some cases at the forefront
of labour struggles. That they do play their rightful role challenges ideas about women’s docility
and weak fallback position as deterrents against their organisation (Chaudhuri Zohir and Paul-
Majumder 1996; Zaman 2001; Siddiqi 2000).


Bangladesh industrial trade unions have historically been associated with the public sector,
male-dominated, and closely linked to political parties. They have been generally seen in the
social science literature as party-dominated interest groups with limited interest in any wider
public good. Yet there are signs of change:

The trade unions are overwhelmingly male-dominated, reproducing within their
leadership and rank-and-file membership the patriarchal attitudes of the wider
society. Few have been willing to take up ‘women’s issues’ seriously – harassment
on the streets and within factories, proper toilet facilities, maternity leave and
childcare. This appears to be changing, as a number of the more progressive unions
have sought to set up ‘women’s wings’ which deal more sensitively with women
workers … There may be also greater support from workers and management for
enterprise-based unions which respond to the needs of workers within their
factories rather than seeking to represent the interests of political parties (Kabeer
and Mahmud 2004b: 153).

Trade unions were prohibited in the EPZs until the 2004 EPZ Act, and recent official statements
indicate that in the absence of sanctioned forms of trade union activity, garment workers have
been forced into violent action to make their claims. Quieter, less well-documented forms of
association and mutual support have also developed, through neighbourhood-level associations
of workers (Mahmud and Kabeer 2006; However, factory owners continue to discourage or
repress efforts to organise workers, and to see the extension of rights to organise as the
beginning of the end for the garment industry of Bangladesh.

Comparative pay data

Workers’ experiences of economic and social empowerment through garments work

If garments work is so tough and exploitative, why did so many millions of Bangladesh women
break with custom and the powerful rules of female segregation to take up factory work since
the late 1970s? In this section we look briefly at the rich literature on the changes in women’s
lives that have been associated with garments work.

The abundant qualitative evidence of the motivations of women and girls for migrating from
rural areas to the cities to take up paid garments work clearly identifies economic need as the
driving force (see Amin et al 1997; Kabeer 1991b; 2000; Kabeer and Mahmud 2004a; Kibria
1995; 1998; Feldman 2009). Yet economic need encompasses a wide diversity of explanations
and meanings and types of household condition, and does not mean, as some views have it, that
women have been forced into such employment.16

The vital point to emerge is that for women from across quite a wide range of household types,
garments work meant a meaningful expansion of their agency at times in their lives, and that
wages were central. Kibria emphasises the diversity of households and women’s motivations for


Hussain (2010), for example, describes the situation as follows: ‘A cheap labour market is created for
women in Bangladesh, who are increasingly dragged into the garment sector. Female garment workers
suffer from bad working conditions, few rights, and no social security or sustainable livelihood’ pp. 328.


entering garments work, noting that while the most common explanation for such work in her
1998 study was to enable family survival, some women saw garments work as a means of
enabling investment in the family’s future prospects (for example children’s or sibling’s
education), and others, mainly unmarried women, saw it as enabling them to look after
themselves, often in order to relieve families of the burdens of looking after their adult
daughters. This latter factor is partly explained in terms of avoiding the need for families to
make dowry payments, by women earning towards them themselves, or marrying without
dowry. As one young woman explained it:

If you work in garments you can better yourself. What’s the use of sitting at home?
If I lived in the village I would be married by now, but I’m glad that my life is
different. Because I’m self-sufficient I can go where I want and marry whom I want.
Even after I’m married, I will continue to live my life in my own way (Kibria 1995:

Other explanations included the desire to avoid unwanted marriages, male attention or family
conflict, and as is suggested by the above, for personal autonomy (Kibria 1998; see also Kabeer
1991b; 2000).

It is clear that for many of the women at least in the earlier decades of the industry, the decision
to take up garments work was difficult because it involved conflict or tension with (generally
men) family members, or with women’s and society’s own values and ideologies about women’s
mobility and work. For women with stricter interpretations of social rules, garments work meant
painful choices:

I am in need, that is why I have come to work, otherwise I would have stayed at
home, done namaaz-roza [prayer and fasting]. I feel bad, but what can I do, I have
to live somehow … But we are being sinful because it is a sin if other men see you.
That I walk through the streets is a sin (in Kabeer 2000: 88).

A particularly rich and insightful set of analyses explore how women have sought to
accommodate what appears to be a straightforward clash of culture with economic
imperative.17 This has shown how this was also a time when Bangladeshi women began to
redefine and negotiate the terms of purdah,18 typically reinterpreting it as a state of mind in
contrast to its customary expression as physical – as absence from public space, modest clothing
and a quiet demeanour (Kabeer 2000; Feldman 2009). Examples were given above of how
women negotiate the treacherous public spaces in which they routinely face ‘eve-teasing’ and
other serious forms of harassment. Women reinterpret the meanings of purdah in ways that
make sense in their lives, sometimes as a code of behaviour with relatively few restrictions on
personal mobility. Other more visible forms of renegotiation can be found in the multiple
fashions of women’s clothes and coverings that can now be seen on the streets, whereas there


As Kabeer (1991b) put it, the challenge has been to explain women’s agency when they are framed as
either ‘cultural dopes or rational fools’.

Amin explains that purdah has often been mis-specified as the superficial matter of women hiding their
faces and body. She defines it instead as ‘the broader set of norms and regulations that promote the
seclusion of women, enforce their exclusion from public spaces, and give specific gender identities to
labour (1997: 219). See also Rozario (1992).


were once only children and women in burkahs, if at all. These close-grained accounts offer
valuable testimony of the strategies and meanings behind a revolutionary shift in the material
basis of gender relations, diplomatically cloaked by many women under an apparently orthodox

Women’s wages and male power

It is clear from these accounts that the economic aspect of their empowerment is central, and
that the terms and degree of their control of their garments incomes matter. But it is difficult to
arrive at a clear answer about how much control over wages garments workers typically retain,
because this varies greatly. Kibria identifies a range of levels and types of women’s control over
their income from garments work. This included male-dominant households in which women
handed over their wages without question, to those often lower middle class households in
which women were permitted to retain earnings, to situations in which the worker had total
control over her wages. The class and social differences between types of households made all
the difference to how and whether income control was exerted. Kibria notes that while

*F+ear of men’s withdrawal from their familial economic responsibilities caused
women to hand over their wages, it also, somewhat ironically, encouraged women
to covertly withhold a portion of their pay from the male household heads (1995:

In relation to women’s choices in relation to work, Kabeer similarly distinguishes among the
varied motivations and social contexts from which Bangladeshi women come, identifying
differences along the dimensions of whether their agency was reluctant or active, and whether
their decision making involved conflict, contestation or consensus (2000). A vital factor in
Kabeer’s analysis is recognition of the fact that regardless of women’s capacities to actually
access paid work and the benefits of that work, the importance of male protection features at
the base of all such choices. As one interviewee explained ‘the fear that women have’ of being
without male protection made it unlikely that such choices would include those which would
alienate men (1997; 2000):

This generalized insecurity, ‘the fear that women have’… explained why in so many
of the cases we examined, women chose not to exercise control over their incomes,
let alone make choices which could threaten the established norms and practices of
male privilege within the household. On the contrary, there were far more
examples of a systematic effort to deny that wages had made any real difference to
the balance of power within the household (Kabeer 1997: 297).

It is well known that without male protectors, particularly fathers or husbands, women can be
extremely vulnerable in Bangladesh, as the state affords little protection. This ensures a form of
male power that to some extent overshadows the empowerment potential of a mere wage. In
such a context, some quite strategic thinking has probably gone into decisions around the
control of the wage. Yet it is also clear from some of this body of work that male attitudes
towards this income and the benefits it brings to the family unit also vary, with some threatened
by this challenge to their meagre authority, and others open to a more equitable arrangement
regarding resources.


An important message is that the limits to women’s empowerment through individual economic
means are set within the structures of what remains a patriarchal society with powerful
institutions of male privilege. Yet very clearly, as the garments workers have shown, there is
ample room for negotiation and manoeuvre within those structures, partly because men’s
attitudes also adapt.

Somewhat less attention has been paid to date to the social effects of women’s work in the
garments. As will be discussed below, one broader effect has been to feminise urban public
space – an effect felt positively by all Bangladeshi women. But for workers themselves, factory
work has been an opportunity to learn more about the world beyond the confines of the village;
to work in a modern, fast-changing sector, connected to the rest of the world and prominently
alluded to by Governments and the media; to make friends and form associations beyond
immediate kin groups; and to have and exercise choice in relation to romantic relationships and
marriage (Kabeer 2000; Kibria 1998; Dannecker 1999).

4. The wider effects of RMG employment

We turn now to a discussion of the wider effects of RMG employment on gender equality and
empowerment in Bangladesh. On this issue, it is important to note that we lack the rich, close-
up accounts that the qualitative research into women’s experiences of factory work have
afforded. To some degree, this section is based on informed speculation by experts in the field19
and the fragmentary secondary and anecdotal evidence drawn from a range of sources. This
means it should be read as an attempt to formulate hypotheses rather than as a fully developed
argument. The importance of this section is that it enables a fuller analysis of empowerment in
the collective and political senses that are typically excluded from accounts of women’s
empowerment in Bangladesh, as noted above.

The impact on men’s attitudes

It is worth noting first that there has been both social backlash against women’s factory work
amongst groups opposed to gender equality, as well as a longstanding scepticism about the
extent of women’s empowerment from feminists and other progressive groups.20 The widely-
held view is that women’s work in the garments industry is symbolic of the social problems of
contemporary Bangladesh:21

People say that if we vote for the Jamaat, the garment factories will be shut down.
Why should they be shut down? Men and women will simply have separate


For example, Bhattacharya, Rahman and Raihan 2002; Mahmud 2003.

For example, Rozario and Samuel note that ‘Economic transformations in Bangladesh, including the
growth of the garments industry and of NGO employment, have opened up extensive possibilities for new
economic roles for women, but the dominant Bangladeshi culture of gender has remained relatively little
altered by these developments’ (2010: 357). Also Rozario 2001.

See also Karim 2004 for an example of the symbolism of the garments trade in the politics of the
religious right.


garments factories! People tell garments workers that they will lose their jobs if
they vote for the Jamaat (interview with a woman Jamaat-i-Islami supporter in
Dhaka, Shehabuddin 2008: 597).

Women workers also face widespread criticism and suspicion of their morals on the basis that
they lack male protection, and are mobile, including at night (Siddiqi 2000). Garments work has
never really had the wider society’s respect as a form of women’s work, for a number of
possible reasons. This means mainly that men’s attitudes towards garments workers have not
been notably progressive: the popular view questions the virtue of women workers, just as it
generally assumes women in public spaces to be more sexually available. This reflects the
assumption across South Asia that women in public space are fair game for male abuse and can
safely be assumed to be of ‘loose morals’ or without male protection.22 The level of harassment
described by garments workers in the survey and qualitative research must prove an intolerable
strain, and sometimes worse. Harassment and abuse within factories has long been a concern,
particularly in the poorly run smaller (often called bangla factories) suppliers. Bigger factories
are often credited with better working conditions, which include more rule-bound behaviour by
managers (Hossain et al 2009). Yet the more generalised phenomena of harassment and
violence against women has affected women in the garments sector very directly, through their
very public street presence, and the apparently high proportion of murders of garments workers
than of any other women’s occupation group.

There is also some ambivalence towards the social disruption associated with the garments
industry among the progressive middle classes. Urbanisation is in general not supported by the
urban middle class and elite groups for a range of reasons. There is a strong cultural preference
for the rural, and a fear that poor rural people become spoiled when they come to the city. This
gives rise to particular concerns about young women. One NGO director explained how the
opportunities of city life could lead young women astray:

These garments workers, they earn only Tk. 800 - 1200 – you should see the
housing they live in. They live on potatoes and rice. Those who are the smarter
type, they have a side of prostitution. One girl who used to work in [the NGO
headed by the speaker], I met her in the street, and she was hiding her lipstick, but
she claimed she has extra work, freedom, a house, and wouldn’t go back to the
village. It’s not intentional, she was forced, mastaans [gangsters] provide them with
some security. These are hard issues, I am not a moralist, but as an individual, it is
hard. They earn more, and the family want her to stay there, get the money, and
they keep her daughter. In this atmosphere, you can’t bring up a daughter, clients
will look at the daughter … I can take a moralistic view, but if I haven’t eaten for 10
days, I don’t know (in Hossain 2005).

Work by Karim (2004) and Shehabuddin (2008) similarly suggests that male attitudes within the
religious right movement often treat garments work as a symbol of the failings of western-
centred development.


The common use of the innocuous term ‘eve-teasing’ highlights the tolerance of South Asian societies
for what is in fact psychologically and otherwise damaging forms of sexual harassment.


RMG employment and the expansion of basic education for girls

Despite such ambivalence about the social effects of RMG employment, there are good reasons
to believe that the availability of RMG employment has shaped the demand for and the supply
of education for girls. If this is true, it will have played a part in the rapid gains in gender equality
in education. To date, and reflecting the predominance of girls and women as unskilled short-
term workers, the effects have mainly been felt in basic (primary and lower secondary)

The evidence for a claim that RMG employment has directly influenced Bangladesh’s education
successes is admittedly limited. On the demand side, parental views on the value of girls’
education are believed to have shaped by the availability of jobs for girls with at least basic
schooling (Hossain and Kabeer 2003; Blunch and Das 2007). Kabeer identifies ‘a re-valuing of girl
children and a willingness to invest in their education’ among some women workers, learned
from their own experiences of entry into paid work (1997: 287). An interviewee in another study

Is there anything possible today without an education? You need to be educated if
you go for a job in any garment factory, if you want to start a business and even if
you want to set up a shop (in Kabeer and Mahmud 2009: 13).

A study of rural-urban migration supports the idea of a causal link between RMG employment
and girls’ education, noting that:

work opportunities created for the illiterate and semi-literate girls and women by
the export oriented ready-made garments sector in the mid-1980s can be
considered an important reason for the spread of education among poorer
households and an equalizing of gender disparity in enrolment rates in rural areas.
More than 90 per cent of the garment workers are rural migrants, mostly women
(70-75 per cent), a large majority of whom (about 75 per cent) come from mainly
landless and land-poor households. Thus, compared to slum women aged 15 and
over in Dhaka who, on average, have less than one year’s schooling, rural women in
garment factories have 2.3 years schooling, even if they belong to landless families
(Afsar 1999: 242).23

An analysis of the factors behind changing norms around girls’ education in qualitative research
similarly identifies included the garments industry as part of the wider environment shaping
change in the valuation of investment in girls (Schuler 2007; Hossain and Tavakoli 2008).
However, the most compelling explanation for the apparent rise in demand for girls’ schooling is
that of timing: the pace of educational expansion over the 1990s lagged slightly behind the
expansion of women’s work opportunities in the RMG sector.

There is a risk of overstating the significance of RMG employment in changing valuation of girls’
schooling. For much of its history, work as a machine operator, the job the vast majority of


In other research, Afsar has also noted the relatively high levels of education among Bangladeshi
women migrating overseas to work in export manufacturing in Malaysia and the Middle East (2004).


women workers access, has required little or no schooling. This situation may now be changing,
and higher secondary and further education are increasingly common in the better garments
jobs, such as in the EPZs.24 In addition, it seems that workers with less education were
retrenched before those with more education when the sector was hit by the export downturn
after 9/11 (Siddique 2003).

However, qualitative studies of parental aspirations more rarely mention garments work
spontaneously as a motivation for educating girls; most instead cite more high status jobs in the
public sector such as teachers or health sector workers (see Arends-Kuenning and Amin 2001;
Schuler 2007). This may not mean that garments employment is excluded from parental
calculations, because even though not preferred work, it may still offer a reasonable fallback
position for girls from low income families. The view of RMG employment as reasonable safety
net employment would be consistent with the literature on the motivation of early entrants into
the RMG sector. And it is also consistent with the fact that these more respectable white collar
jobs for women, including NGO, private sector and public sector employment, have all become
considerably more realistic options for young women with education in the 2000s (Al-Samarrai
2007), making such aspiration realistic. As garments work lacks the wide positive social
perception associated with other forms of women’s work, it is likely that it would not be aspired
to or invested in to quite the same extent.

On the supply-side, timing and emphasis in education policy suggest but do not confirm that
women’s RMG employment has had an effect. The Government has made it clear that its
education policy is at least in part about creating ‘dutiful and responsible manpower with
scientific outlook’, in a nod to export manufacturing (Government of Bangladesh 2000). It is
believed that the BGMEA was supportive of government schemes to expand girls’ educational
access, such as the Female Secondary Stipend programme;25 it continues to make supportive
noises about the Government’s education programme, and has itself a number of programmes
related to female education. And the context in which the stipend programme was developed
included clear awareness of the growing demand for female workers (Mahmud 2003).

Women’s mobility and the feminisation of public space

A second dimension of the wider effects of RMG employment is the feminisation of urban public
space it has engendered. The social significance of the change in women’s public mobility should
not be underestimated, even though its effects may be hard to measure in economic terms. It is
the single aspect of RMG employment on which all observers agree, so long as they can
remember the time when city streets and other public spaces were exclusively male domains:

In 1984 I visited Bangladesh to begin research on female garment workers. The
image that remains deeply embedded in my consciousness is the dramatic change
that characterized the streets of Dacca since I had left the country only eighteen


Khatun et al note that some 95.4 per cent of garments workers are literate, compared to 52.8 per cent
of men and 44.5 per cent of women in the wider population (2007).

Samer Al-Samarrai, personal communication. No supporting documentation has yet been found for this
point; the author would welcome any help with references on this point. If it is true, it is an instance of
the classic Gintis and Bowles’ 1976 thesis about the role of education in capitalist development.


months earlier. Perhaps most striking were the number of women who now walked
along the road, often in groups of six or more, especially after a shift change at the
recently opened garment factories that dotted the streets throughout the city. The
image of women dressed in cotton saris leaving work in the early evening was in
stark contrast to my earlier experience when I was one of only a few, if any, women
walking quickly along these same roads. It also was a change from the time when I
was the only woman in a government or commercial office, or in some of the
smaller fresh produce or fish markets, unchaperoned by either an older or younger
male companion. At first I could hardly make sense of this now strange and
different place that had been my home for five years. Was I mistaken? Did I
remember incorrectly? Did I get caught by the Western image of Bangladesh and
Bangladeshi women dominated by purdah (female seclusion), only to confront the
everyday lives of young women struggling to make a living? How was I to
understand this apparently fantastic change in the course of a mere eighteen
months? (Feldman 2001: 1097).

Zaman is similarly awed by the rapidity of this entirely unanticipated change in society: ‘Every
morning, between six and eight, hundreds and thousands of women garment workers in Dhaka
walk through the streets - a scene not even imagined 20 years ago’ (2001: 148). Other scholars
similarly note the ‘dramatic’ change involved in women’s RMG work (Amin 1997). A recent essay
illustrates this remarkable change in images showing an image of 21st century Bangladeshi
women ‘on the move’, a world away from older images of helpless rural women in need of aid
(see Rahim and Azim 2010).

Why does the feminisation of public space matter? For two main reasons. The first is that it
helps to create a more gender equitable cultural norm by normalising women’s public mobility
and access to public institutions. It is by no means the case that the social restrictions on
women’s public mobility have been removed, but there is a clear change in that women and
girls have a wider menu of options and more room for manoeuvre and multiple interpretations
of appropriate female behaviour than in the past (for example, Huq 2010). Most recently, the
debate has begun to focus on the meanings and uses of hijab and other variations on women’s
clothing and public appearance (see also Azim 2007). The policy significance of this change is
that cultural constraints to gender equity are not absolute or rigid, and that women can be
agents in transforming their meaning and practice.

A second reason the feminisation of public space matters is its potential significance for
improving women’s public safety. Sexual harassment and ‘eve-teasing’ are still a major problem
in Bangladesh (see World Bank 2008a; Hossain et al 2008), but as noted above, there are also
signs that these problems are beginning to be recognised for the serious impediment to
women’s development that they are.

Citizenship and political empowerment

RMG employment also appears to have been part of the reconfiguration of women’s citizenship.
It has primarily been in their reproductive role that women have featured in state discourse and
public policy language to date in Bangladesh. This appears to be changing, as the 2005 and 2009
PRSP documents indicate (Government of Bangladesh 2009a; 2005). Instead of being seen


exclusively as the mothers of future citizens, more recent official statements recognise women
as not only workers like any others, but particularly central actors in the all-important RMG
industry. Siddiqi makes this point particularly well, showing how the presence of large-scale
female RMG employment has become part of the Bangladesh brand by representing to the
outside world a unique combination of social progress with moderate Islam (2009):

*T+he Bangladesh government … tried to capitalize on its image as a Muslim but
moderate country, the second largest Muslim democracy, and a trailblazer in the
emancipation of Muslim women’s rights. The emerging rhetoric invoked the image
of oppressed Muslim women coming out of seclusion and into the liberated world
of wage labour. Officials based requests for US [trade] concessions on warnings of
threats to women workers’ new-found empowerment (thereby resonating with
both the neo-liberal and anti-terror agendas) (Siddiqi 2009: 165).

Garments workers also appear to be increasingly aware of their rights as citizens (Kabeer and
Kabir (2009), as well as of their significance within the national economy. Nazma Akhter, the
former child worker and now labour leader, described garments workers as ‘the new golden
girls of Bengal’, referring to their central role in ushering in a more prosperous age (Siddiqi 2009:

The most vivid evidence of the political empowerment being experienced by women RMG
workers is, however, in the continuing unrest in the sector, and the ongoing movement for a
higher minimum wage. The violence and disruption to the industry have been much deplored,
yet the struggle has scored notable successes to date, including an almost doubling of the
minimum wage (although the campaign continues for a higher wage yet), the provision of
subsidised food grains in the factories to protect against rising food prices, and in the generally
more supportive position taken by the present Government to garments workers’ rights.

This is an issue with many dimensions, not all of which can be explored here. Several points are
worth noting, however. One is that women on the whole continue to be disadvantaged and
disinclined with respect to labour organisation, including for reasons of their status as unskilled
workers in a labour surplus economy and because of the pressures applied by factory owners to
prevent unionisation (Mahmud and Kabeer 2006; Zaman 2001; Rock 2003). The relative
weakness of women workers’ bargaining position has, however, been partly obviated by the
rising numbers of men in the industry, to whose growing number the spread of labour unrest is
widely attributed. Yet under conditions of the suppression of labour organisation on grounds of
protecting the industry’s global competitiveness, new, more localised forms of worker
mobilisation have been emerging; despite their limitations, some of these may help to address
women workers’ immediate concerns (Kabeer and Kabir 2009).

A second factor of interest about RMG workers’ political empowerment is that improvements in
workers’ rights appear to have been driven more by successes within national politics rather
than by global campaigns to promote labour and social standards.26 There has been a shift in the
enforcement of ‘compliance’ in the RMG industry (Mahmud and Kabeer 2006), which is enabling
a more constructive engagement between workers and employers and having other positive


As Kabeer notes, there has been widespread suspicion, particularly in the global South, about the ‘real
reasons for such advocacy’ around labour standards (2000: 387).


effects on management practices within the more established and larger factories. But it is clear
that such compliance remains forced on employers, as on the buyers who themselves impose it
on their suppliers: it does not amount to a ‘culture of compliance’ or a wider recognition that
raised labour standards may be in employers’ interests to the extent they promote worker
productivity. And there remain the many informal ‘sweatshop’ style factories that continue to
make up a large proportion of RMG production (Mahmud and Kabeer 2006).

The third factor shaping RMG workers’ political empowerment is their exposure to the global
economy. As is the case elsewhere, globalisation has had a range of paradoxical effects on RMG
workers in Bangladesh, including that increased downward on wages in an increasingly globally
competitive market has meant more jobs, and arguably more competition for garments workers
over the 2000s. This has been good for garments’ workers collective power. But the limits to the
‘comparative advantage of their disadvantage’ are also revealed by the effects of globalisation,
through the effects on their living standards of global food and fuel price volatility. These have
been among the single most important motivations behind workers’ demands for higher wages
since 2006. It is a concern in which the wider population, particularly urban groups, can readily
share (see Hossain et al 2009; 2010). In real terms, then, globalisation has meant RMG workers’
real wages have declined substantially over the past five years. It has been principally through
direct action framed in terms of intolerably high food prices that the minimum wage campaign
has been staged. Its successes to date may relate to wider public sympathy in the face of the
shared experience of the rising cost of living, to the present Government’s traditionally closer
alignment with trade unions and claims to pro-poor orientation and responsiveness with respect
to food security. In this context it is also worth noting that the continued unrest in the sector
does not appear to have substantially affected the sector’s growth, which has rebounded
remarkably in the global economic recovery.

5. Conclusions

Women’s RMG employment marked a dramatic shift in aspects of gender relations in
Bangladesh, particularly because of its mass scale. Despite the hard and exploitative nature of
garments work, women and girls have gained autonomy and greater bargaining power within
households. The direct effects on women workers’ lives have been varied, as women’s lives and
social settings are themselves diverse; but the overall picture that emerges is one of expanded
choices and gains in power. This much is already known about the effects of women’s garments
work in Bangladesh. Less has been known of how – indeed, whether – RMG employment has
had wider effects beyond those of individual economic empowerment. This paper draws
together the fragmentary evidence available to argue that it may well have had wider impacts
on society, and is beginning now to show some changes in respect of women’s citizenship and
political power. These gains include

Yet these gains are all relative to the other choices for women in what remains a poor,
patriarchal society. RMG employment has great potential to contribute far more to gender
equity in Bangladesh. It is clear, for instance, that employers have powerful interests in
supporting public policies to sustain investments in the skills of the population, particularly that
of girls and women. Equally, they would benefit directly from pro-poor public policies to
promote urban housing, public and particularly women’s safety and freedom from harassment,
improvements in urban food security, and healthcare and childcare provision. That these public


policies to promote pro-poor and gender equitable change are in the interests of the RMG
sector relates above all to the direction of change in the industry. All knowledgeable observers
agree that the future growth and sustainability of the industry depend now on upgrading and
gains in worker productivity. This is particularly urgent in a context in which further downward
pressure on wages is evidently impossible, as seen in the powerful resistance against the
effective cuts in real wages that resulted from rising global food prices from 2006 onwards. All
sectoral observers and analysts are clear that in such a context, the RMG sector’s continued
progress depends substantially on its capacity to upgrade and raise productivity. To do this will
self-evidently requires stronger public as well as private investment in workers’ skills, starting
with basic education for girls. It requires workplaces in which women are able to learn and
practice their skills over time, to become more valuable and more effective workers over time.
For that to occur, in addition to living and reliable wage and overtime payment, factory floors
need to be more supportive of women’s care work, so that they can balance their household
work with their factory work; more concerned to ensure their dignity and respect by addressing
poor management practices and sexual harassment in and en route to factories; and of their
rights by enabling women workers’ more meaningful dialogue and participation in policy
formulation (including in education and training, public safety and transport, urban housing,
safety at work); this in turn requires that women workers are able to aggregate and articulate
their interests, and to continue to work with the women’s movement.

The RMG sector can no longer rely on an endless stream of unskilled village girls for its
workforce, but needs to figure out ways of retaining skilled workers and enabling them to
perform better. This in turn requires greater investment in the basic education and skills of girls
and women by both state and the RMG sector. It will also require the participation of women
workers in dialogue and policy formulation.



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From: MoF 2009, chapter 6: The External Sector, pp. 77

Third Fiscal Stimulus package (export-focused)
*Fiscal Package in 2008-09 for immediate action:
The Government has taken the following decisions to implement the package in April- June
• Increasing cash incentive from 7.5 percent to 10 percent for jute goods;
• Increasing cash incentive from 15 percent to 17.5 percent for finished leather and leather
• Increasing cash incentive from 10 percent to 12.5 percent for frozen foods and other
exportable fishes. Besides, incentives for other exportable items remain the same; such as
indigenous cloth, agricultural and agro processing goods; potato, bi-cycle, smashed bone,
hatching egg, chickens of one day, engineering goods, liquid glucose and 100 percent halal meat.

*Policy Support in 2008-09
Export Sector
• Streamlining the cash incentive fund release procedures to ensure immediate disbursement of
70 percent of this incentive;
• The time for making down payment in respect of repayment of bank loans for exporters and
yarn producers has been extended up to September 2009. Rescheduling facilities are to be
extended on a case to case basis;
• Bangladesh Bank will take necessary steps for rescheduling export credit to the scheduled
• The size of Export Development Fund has been increased and an individual borrower's limit
also been increased to US$ 1.5 million from US$ 1 million. Credit facility will be enhanced for
financing the import of machinery for plants engaged in manufacturing of exportable items.
• Extension of reduced rate of interest (7 percent) to all exportable goods and time limit for
repayment has been extended to 120 days;
• Steps has been taken for rationalizing the renewal fees for captive generation of electricity;
Extra surcharge has been imposed on Biman Bangladesh Airlines for transporting fruits and
vegetables for price hike of fuel all over the world. Ministry of Civil Aviation has been told to
request the concerned authority to reduce the rate as the price has already gone down.
• Subsidized price rice distribution program has started among the garments workers'.
• Steps have been taken to increase productivity of the frozen food sector by adopting EU
acceptable standards and applying intensive cultivation technology.
• Steps have been taken to sort out the reasons for non-achieving export targets in
pharmaceuticals and ceramics sector.

The initiatives that Bangladesh Bank is pursuing and will pursue in financial sector are as follows:
• Proper attention on exchange rate in order to maintain export competitiveness of the
exporters particularly to maintain a reasonable spread between REER and NEER.
• Re-fixing the rate of repo and reverse repo, SLR etc. in order to lower the interest rate
imposing on advance.

*Fiscal Package in FY 2009-10


In order to tackle the adverse impact of global economic recession, the steps that the
Government has already been taken will continue in the next year and the allocation will be
ensured on the basis of regular monitoring. This allocation will be reflected in the budget of the
next fiscal year on the basis of realities on the ground and recommendation of the Taskforce.

*Policy Support in FY 2009-10
Export Sector
• Steps will be taken to impose or withdraw VAT over export.
• The Textile Institutes, Bangladesh Institute of Fashion Training and the Department of Youth
will be directed and allocated money to arrange special training programs for the garments
workers' required for their service in the garments factories.