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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 37, New Delhi, August 28, 2021

Re-configuring Labour in the Ready Made Garments Industry in Bangladesh: Up-scaling, Up-skilling and Re-masculinizing | Strümpell & Ashraf

Friday 27 August 2021

by Christian Strümpell & Hasan Ashraf *

Bangladesh’s growth into one of the world’s major producers of ready-made garments, or RMG, over the last forty years is well-known. Starting out with 9 RMG factories in 1978, their numbers grew to 598 in 1985, to 2,353 in 1996, and to more than 4,500 factories in late 2019, a few months before the global Covid-19 pandemic. Likewise, the industry’s turnover grew from 131.48 million USD in 1985 to 2.55 billion USD and to 33.07 billion USD in 2019, and its workforce from 200,000 to 1.29 million and to, shortly before the pandemic, 4.2 million. [1] It is equally well-known that the RMG industry relies primarily on the labour power of young women. The RMG industry and its promoters take this to present itself as a catalyser of ‘women empowerment’ while critical voices invoke the image of the young woman worker to highlight the gendered dimension of exploitation in global production networks. We sympathise with this latter position, and agree that capitalism and class exploitation thrive on racism and sexism. [2] However, several recent studies have cast some doubt on the notion that Bangladesh’s RMG workforce is overwhelmingly women. A review of the literature and a factory survey undertaken by researchers from BRAC University e.g. shows that the male-female ratio among the labour force comes nowhere near 20 : 80 that is usually invoked, and that it rather lies between 35 : 65 and 45 : 55. [3] The report also makes the important observation that variations in gender ratio among RMG workforces depends on the kind of factory of men in ‘knitwear factories’ is significantly higher than in ‘woven factories’, and that it tends to increase the larger factories are. In a brief ethnographic research undertaken in late 2019, we made the same observation. Taking a historical perspective, we argue that the current dynamic in the RMG industry amounts to a ‘re-masculinizing’ of garment labour, and that it is related to far-ranging organizational and technological changes the industry is going through in Bangladesh. More speculatively, we ask what the political repercussions of this re-masculinization might be.

The first RMG factories

RMG factories producing for export started in Bangladesh in 1978 as joint ventures of local producers with companies from newly industrializing East Asian countries, especially from Hong Kong and South Korea. [4] These joint ventures were intended primarily to skirt the quotas restricting the amounts of garments East Asian producers could export to North America and the European Union under the so-called Multi-Fibre Agreement that the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GAAT) had introduced in 1974. [5] Since wages in Bangladesh then ranked lowest among the Asian countries still outside the purview of this agreement, it became a favorable destiny for outsourcing production. [6] Its political instability under changing military dictatorships, however, impeded the spread of such joint ventures. In 1989, they numbered only 15, a many of which were located in the first Export Processing Zones (EPZ) that the military government set up for such purposes in 1983 in the port town Chittagong and in 1993 at the outskirts of the capital Dhaka. [7]

Most ready-made garment factories were established without direct foreign involvement, and not by businessmen or industrialists, but by retired civil servants, army officers or others from the urban middle class without any or only little experience in the business or in garment production. But these new RMG industrialists also did not require much. They were provided with foreign orders by local ‘buying houses’, and the production of shirts and t-shirts — which RMG industries in Bangladesh produced then — was based on only relatively simple technical operations in ‘cutting trimming making’. [8] Dyed fabric and other material inputs they procured from local textile mills or from abroad, and the relatively simple and cheap machinery required for that, they could accommodate in rented floors in residential complexes in the cities of Chittagong and Dhaka and did not require larger integrated factory complexes. For that reason, they also did not need much capital, and whatever they needed, they were readily provided by development financial institutes in Bangladesh, which considered the secure access to sales markets in the United States and the EU the RMG owners enjoyed as enough of a guarantee that the latter could repay credits. [9]

The first RMG labour forces

The first joint ventures were nevertheless crucial for the transfer of technology and skills to Bangladesh. In 1978, Desh Garments e.g., among the first RMG producers from Bangladesh, sent workers for training to South Korea. Back in Bangladesh, the latter trained other workers on the job. These skilled workers were highly sought after, and they often joined other local companies without direct foreign investment. Most of the trainees were men. [10] In fact, as old unionists told us (and as old newspaper photos reveal), [11] most sewing operators in the local garment industry so far had been men. However, when the RMG industry really took off in Bangladesh in the mid-1980s, it primarily drew on women workers. Although reliable figures on the exact share of women among the early RMG workforces are missing, it is certain that they formed the large majority. Men were usually employed in better-paid positions that often came with more authority. Thus, managers were all men, and so were supervisors, workers in the cutting and finishing sections, or mechanics fixing machines. [12] However, rooted in notions of their innate ‘nimble fingers’ widely circulating locally as well as globally [13] women were sought after for sewing operations, which soon became almost their exclusive domain. Since sewing was the most labor-intensive part of the ‘cutting-trimming-making’ undertaken in Bangladesh’s RMG industry women began to starkly outnumber men from the mid-1980s onwards, and made up roughly 80 percent of the overall workforce, as is widely reported. [14]

The RMG workforces were not only largely women, but were believed to share other social characteristics. They were young — a good number even minors — and they were rural migrants, pushed to the urban labour markets in Dhaka and Chittagong by an agrarian crisis that increased the share of landless households in the overall population from 32.8 percent in 1977 to 45 percent in 1984. [15] In the eyes of garment factory owners and the urban elite to whom they belonged, RMG workers were thus sojourners who would work a few years in urban factories, but would eventually return to their villages and marry, with their savings from garment work paying for their dowry — as garment factory owners habitually told these women’s parents in the 1980s. Because of these social characteristics, the urban elite expected the garment workforce to be nimble-fingered, patient, and docile.

Labour struggles in the RMG industry

As the anthropologists Naila Kabeer and Dina Siddiqi as well as sociologist Petra Dannecker rightly argues, the picture of the docile ‘garment girl’ is seriously at odds with the measures of control they are exerted to in RMG factories. It is also at odds with the often militant collective action in which women RMG workers engage. [16] Although Bangladesh’s then ruling military regime repressed any popular protest with heavy hand, women garment workers had organized themselves already in the late 1980s. After large-scale popular protest forced the military government to give way to parliamentary democracy in the 1990s, garment workers increasingly engaged in large-scale collective action, and launched major industry-wide strikes in 2006 and 2010. These strikes, as well as any attempt to organize, still met much repression. [17] The government installed an industrial police force in 2010 and provided it with far-reaching authority to control workers and curb future ‘labor riots’. [18] Bangladesh’s garment industry body also centrally collected data on allegedly recalcitrant garment workers — that is, the ones aiming to organize themselves and other workers. Nevertheless, garment workers’ struggles were not without success. The large strike RMG workers from thousands of factories in and around Dhaka launched in 2006 led to the doubling of the minimum wage and to the Bangladesh Labor Act of 2006 that facilitated the formation of plant-level unions. [19]

The frequent large-scale labor protests and their brutal suppression by the police also taunted the image of the industry. The same is true for a series of large-scale factory disasters that often — though not exclusively — provoked the protests. Global attention sparked especially around the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse in 2013, the most devastating accident in the global history of garment production that killed at least 1,134 workers and injured more than 2,500. Negotiations between the Government of Bangladesh, national and international trade union federations, and several brands (although some major ones refused to participate) finally led to the so-called Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. [20] As Hasan Ashraf and Rebecca Prentice show, [21] although the Accord addresses important issues regarding workers’ health and safety, it treats these issues merely as a matter requiring technical solutions and does not challenge the fundamental structures of exploitation, on which the industry rests. The Accord thus depoliticizes the situation of garment workers and delegitimizes any forms of protest beyond the conciliatory approach pursued by most mainstream unions.

Up-scaling and up-skilling in the RMG industry

A stated at the beginning, the social profile of the RMG workforce has significantly changed during the last years. When we returned to the RMG factories for new research in late 2019, RMG owners and unionists estimated that the share of men in the workforce had almost doubled since 2015, growing from roughly 20 percent to at least 40 percent. Studies that the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies and the International Labor Organization have undertaken come to the conclusion that men nowadays even slightly outnumber women in the garment workforces. [22] According to these studies, one reason for the widespread ‘masculinization’ of the RMG workforce are the wage hikes in the RMG industry since 2013, which make it more attractive for men to work there. There is of course a bitter irony in this, because it was largely women workers who had fought for these hikes in earlier strikes.

As we have observed over the years, a further reason has to do with spatial-temporal changes in the production process. Over the last decade, many companies relocated into new industrial parks on the outskirts of Dhaka and Chittagong, which offer enhanced infrastructure. [23] Because they cannot afford to commute, factory relocations also force workers to relocate. This disconnects them from the social-cum-political networks they have built up in the city and renders them more vulnerable to control. Furthermore, several of these new factories often also run 24/7 in two twelve-hour shifts. Since women are legally prohibited to regularly work night shifts, they cannot be employed in such factories.

Visuals:

Worker in front of an old garment factory in Dhaka, 2011. Photo by Hasan Ashraf
Below: A Google aerial view of the agglomeration of new, large factory compounds (in blue and light grey) in Bhaluka, 30 km north of Dhaka, 2021

These spatial-temporal changes go hand in hand with recent technological changes. In the sewing factories we visited, sewing machines were still almost exclusively operated by women. However, the lines had been re-arranged so that operators themselves could pass on cloth to their colleagues at the subsequent machine, which earlier had been the job of an equal number of helpers. These helpers had also almost always been women and the re-arrangement of the production lines cost them their jobs. In many sweater factories, we were shown the new computerized jacquard machines that were recently installed and that required few workers for operating them. These workers were skilled, had completed school and vocational training, some even had an engineering diploma, and they were all men. Furthermore, many knitwear manufacturers added expensive, technologically sophisticated spinning, dyeing and washing sections to their factories during the last decade to produce their own fabric, and also here workers are almost exclusively men. These are just a few examples, but they show the strong gender effects of recent changes in Bangladesh’s RMG industry.

These technological and social changes are part of larger changes in the industry. The business volume of the industry increased from 12.5 billion USD in 2009—10 to 34 billion USD in 2018—19. Over the same period, the size of the overall RMG workforce has increased from 3.6 to 4.1 million, while the number of garment factories has declined from 5,000 to 4,500. These figures suggest that production is increasingly concentrated in fewer and larger factories, which is another major reason for shifting production to large industrial parks away from city centers, as RMG factory owners remarked. They further told us that this trend in turn is the corollary of the constant pressure of global garment brands for cheaper and faster production. This reduces profit margins for producers in Bangladesh to an extent that pushes many smaller ones into bankruptcy, while larger ones are compelled to grow, and to seek backward integration of production by investing in spinning and dyeing sections. Similar to the garment industry in Tamil Nadu’s ‘knit city’ Tiruppur, [24] smaller factories that only ‘cut, trim and make’ still exist, but they are related to larger ‘composite factories’ within Bangladesh through an intricate web of subcontracting. Thus, pace historian Joshua Freeman, the RMG industry in Bangladesh is not turning back the clock of industrial development to small, crowded, and dangerous factories resembling the 19th century US sweatshop, [25] but rather replicates locally what Trotsky called the essential unevenness and combination of capitalist development. [26] The COVID-19 pandemic, the disrupted supply chains from China, but most importantly the unilaterally canceled orders from Western brands worth more than 3 billion USD in the spring of 2020, have not halted this development, but as it seems — have rather consolidated it. [27]

Who are the new RMG workers?

The question is, of course, what social and political consequences these changes affect. As our research on these changes has just started, at this point we do not know much about the women who lost their employment in the wake of the changes and who usually return to their villages. We also still require more research on the sociological profile of the new, better-educated men working in the RMG industry. However, the fact that they have completed vocational training or engineering colleges certainly suggests that they do not classify as the urban or rural poor. This is in line with their self-portrayals in the social media Ashraf follows. In their posts, these workers identify as an aspiring middle class (moddhobitto sreni). They emphasize their education, self-discipline, job commitment, and their special skills needed to operate high-end machines, documented, for example, with selfies in front of them. They also call themselves jacquard-er shoinik, that is, ‘the jacquard’s soldiers’ or ‘soldiers of the jacquard machine’. It is not far-fetched to assume that their efforts at masculinizing work in the garment sector are intended to counter the widespread assumptions and depiction of the feminine nature of the workforce — similar to the men workers Leslie Salzinger describes in her ethnography of Mexican maquiladoras. [28] The question is how subjectivity and their position in the industry shapes the politics of these better-educated male workers. As operators of sophisticated and expensive machinery, they work at a neuralgic point in the industry and thus occupy a more powerful position than the largely female operators. At the same time, the prospects of promotion and upward social mobility they enjoy as skilled male operators in contrast to their female colleagues has the potential to compromise them and to make them identify upwardly with management and the ‘middle class’, rather than with the working class, as women workers do. With whom the new male workers solidarize, and in what contexts, still needs to be seen.

*(Authors: Christian Strümpell, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Universität Hamburg, Germany, has undertaken extensive research in India and Bangladesh focusing on the anthropology of labour and work, class and caste. ;
Hasan Ashraf is an anthropologist based at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka and his research interests are labour history, mobility and politics of infrastructure, legal anthropology, and the anthropology of food.)

Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the German Research Council DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) for funding our research. An earlier version of this article appeared in TRAFO — Blog for Transregional Research, 23.07.2021. The usual disclaimers apply.


[1The EU and the US market shares constitute 61.75 percent (20.42 billion USD) and 18.20 percent (6.02 billion USD) respectively.

[2Cedric J. Robinson, On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance, London: Pluto Press, 2019; Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, New York: Autonomedia, 2004; Alessandra Mezzadri, Susan Newman and Sarah Stevano, „Feminist Global Political Economies of Work and Social Reproduction”, Review of Political Economy (2021), DOI: 10.1080/09692290.2021.1957977.

[3Shajahan, Sadril, Md. Faizul Islam, Fahim S. Chowdhury and Faria Ahmad, Demystifying the Workers’ Ratio of Export-Oriented RMG Factories in Bangladesh: Perspectives from Mapped in Bangladesh, Working Paper No. 1, Centre for Entrepreneurship Development, BRAC University, Dhaka 2000.

[4In fact, the first garments for export were produced in Bangladesh as early as the mid-1970s, by a public-sector undertaking and for socialist Eastern European countries. This was initiated by Bangladesh’s first, moderately socialist government after the country’s independence from Pakistan, but the first military government that took over in late 1975 soon abandoned it. See Hafiz G.A. Siddiqi, The Readymade Garment Industry of Bangladesh, Dhaka: The University Press Ltd, 2004, 76.

[5GAAT was a treaty signed immediately after the Second World War to facilitate economic recovery from the war, which eventually led to the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

[6Dina Siddiqi, Women in Question: Gender and Labor in Bangladeshi Factories, Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, 1996, 68. Markus Maurer states that in the mid-1980s, hourly wages in Bangladesh’s garment industry did not exceed 0,25 USD. This was even below the 0,35 USD hourly wages paid in Sri Lanka at the time, and which initially had been the favored destination for the relocation of garment production until the civil war broke out in 1983. Markus Maurer, Skill Formation Regimes in South Asia: A Comparative Study on the Path-Dependent Development of Technical and Vocational Education and Training for the Garment Industry, Frankfurt/M: Peter Lang, 2011, 297.

[7Siddiqi, Women in Question, 71.

[8Maurer, Skill Formation Regimes, 297; Siddiqi, The Readymade Garment Industry, 127.

[9Maurer, Skill Formation Regimes, 291.

[10When Desh Garments, one of the first Bangladeshi companies in the export business, sent the first 130 trainees to South Korea in 1978, only 18 among them were women.

[11An newspaper article by Sadiqur Rahman from 21 February 2021 in The Business Standard reprints photos of sewing lines in Riaz Garments Limited, Bangladesh’s first or among its first RMG producers in 1978. For more information and images, see: https://www.tbsnews.net/feature/panorama/reazuddin-tailor-who-became-first-rmg-exporter-bangladesh-196057

[12Hasan Ashraf, “The Threads of Time in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry: Coercion, Exploitation and Resistance in a Global Workplace”, EthnoScripts 19/2, 2017, 81—106.

[13Leslie Salzinger e.g. discusses the prevalence of this notion among US-American managers and Mexican promoters in her superb ethnography of Mexican maquiladoras Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico’s Global Factories, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, pp. 12-14; p. 51.

[14Petra Dannecker, Conformity or Resistance: Women Garment Workers in Bangladesh, UPL: Dhaka, 2002.

[15Maurer, Skill Formation Regimes, 298.

[16Naila Kabeer, "Cultural dopes or rational fools? Women and Labour Supply in the Bangladesh Garment Industry." The European Journal of Development Research 3/ 1, 1991, 133-160; Dina Siddiqi, “Do Bangladeshi factory workers need saving? Sisterhood in the post-sweatshop Era”, Feminist Review 91/ 1, 2009, 154—174; Petra Dannecker, Conformity or Resistance? Women Workers in the Garment Factories in Bangladesh, Bielefeld, Universität Bielefeld, 1999, 252.

[17See for instance, The Newsmakers, (January 25, 2019) “Bangladesh’s garment workers are demanding higher wages”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbk6uFduq9g

[18Dina Siddiqi, “Before Rana Plaza: Towards a History of Labour Organizing in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry”, in V. Crinis and A. Vickers (eds.), Labour in the Clothing Industry in the Asia Pacific, London: Routledge, 2017, 60—79, here 75.

[19Siddiqi, “Before Rana Plaza”, 72—4; Hasan Ashraf and Rebecca Prentice, “Beyond factory safety: labor unions, militant protest, and the accelerated ambitions of Bangladesh’s export garment industry”, Dialectical Anthropology 43/ 1, 2018, 93—107, here 98.

[20Sarah Ashwin, Naila Kabeer and Elke Schüßler, “Rana Plaza and its Aftermath: Contested Understandings in the Global Garment Industry after Rana Plaza”, Development and Change 51/ 5, 2020, 1296—1305.

[21Ashraf and Prentice, “Beyond Factory Safety”.

[22Muslima Jahan, ‚Women workforce declining in RMG sector‘, English Prothom Alo, 4 Sept. 2019
 https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/Women-workforce-declining-in-RMG-sector. [accessed: 15.03.2021]. The ILO is a United Nations agency and a supranational entity, which works in various countries to establish an international labor standard.

[23The Government of Bangladesh is in the process of establishing 100 EPZ for these and other industries at the periphery of Dhaka and Chittagong. See: http://www.beza.gov.bd/.

[24Geert de Neve, “Fordism, Flexible Specialization and CSR: How Indian Garment Workers Critique Neoliberal Labour Regimes”, Ethnography 15/2, 2014, 184-207.

[25Joshua Freeman, Behemoth: History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, New York: Norton, 2018, 318. We thank Görkem Akgöz for bringing this point to our attention.

[26Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008 (1930); cf. Sharryn Kasmir and Lesley Gill, “No Smooth Surfaces: The Anthropology of Unevenness and Combination”, Current Anthropology 59/ 4, 2018, 355—77.

[27Siddiqi, Dina M., “What the Pandemic Reveals: Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh and Garment Supply Chains”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs September 3, 2020 https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2020/09/03/what-the-pandemic-reveals-workers-rights-in-bangladesh/

[28Leslie Salzinger, Genders in Production.

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