Beginning in the late 1970s, supportive government policies and a favorable trade environment for textile exporting led to rapid growth in Bangladesh’s garment industry. This expansion created significant demand for women’s labor outside the home.
Garment factories often tested potential employees for basic literacy and numeracy and rewarded educational attainment with higher wages. This wage differential encouraged parents to keep their daughters in school and gave young women incentive to delay marriage and childbirth in favor of relatively lucrative work in the factories.
Three factors contributed to the garment industry’s positive impact on WEE:
While these jobs have provided economic opportunities for women, access to quality work opportunities remains a concern. Pressure from international organizations has been crucial for holding international companies operating in Bangladesh accountable and pushing for higher labor standards.
Bangladesh achieved gender parity in secondary school enrollment in 2015.
Average number of children per woman fell from 5.9 in 1983 to 2.3 by 2009.
A uniquely permissive regulatory and labor environment led to rapid expansion in the export-oriented, ready-made garment industry, which in turn created a significant demand for women’s labor (particularly for those with some education). The industry grew 17 percent per year on average and accounted for 75 percent of Bangladesh’s export earnings by 2009.
Element: Decent work opportunities
Availability of and exposure to jobs in the garment industry encouraged women to delay marriage and childbirth in favor of education and factory work. Access to primary education and family planning programs made girls more likely to stay in school and increased women’s likelihood of working outside the home.
Historically this industry has had few worker protections and women have typically held positions in the factories’ lowest levels. Progress to date includes a 2013 legal change that lowered the threshold for unionization, increased the minimum wage, and mandated factory safety inspections. The next major horizon for women in Bangladesh’s garment industry will involve continuing improvement to these workplace protections.
Element: Social and workplace protections
Favorable trade conditions for textile exporting prompted rapid industry expansion and a sharp increase in labor demand. Given that garment factory work has long been viewed as culturally appropriate for women, growth in this industry made stable employment outside the home more accessible and attainable for a greater number of women. These job opportunities encouraged younger women to pursue educational attainment and labor force participation at a critical life stage, leading to delayed marriage and reductions in women’s overall fertility (i.e., the estimated number of children a woman is likely to have based on her age group).
Significant pressure from media (e.g., the New York Times), international organizations (e.g., Human Rights Watch, United Nations), and governments (e.g., EU, USA) have accelerated Bangladesh’s decent work agenda. Partly in response to international pressure, the Bangladeshi government enacted new labor laws in 2013 that reduced barriers to unionization, mandated the hiring of additional factory inspectors, and increased minimum wages by 77 percent. Meanwhile, private-sector companies created the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety in collaboration with local and international unions, workers’ solidarity movements, and NGOs to ensure that workers had recourse in the event of labor violations.
The availability of a meaningful alternative to early marriage and childbirth played a major role in expanding women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh. The highly visible and culturally appropriate work opportunities created by the garment factories increased women’s interest in pursuing education and delaying marriage and childbirth. Broadly accessible education and family planning programs reinforced these trends by helping young women make more informed decisions about their lives.