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Salma, barely twenty, felt ill, and wanted to go home. Forced to work overtime, she crawled under the machine at night to rest. The next day, she died at home. Garment workers demonstrate after the death of Salma, a fellow worker, Shewrapara, Dhaka, January 15, 2008; Photographer: Taslima Akhter

Salma, barely twenty, felt ill, and wanted to go home. Forced to work overtime, she crawled under the machine at night to rest. The next day, she died at home. Garment workers demonstrate after the death of Salma, a fellow worker, Shewrapara, Dhaka, January 15, 2008; Photographer: Taslima Akhter

Nazneen Shifa

THE narrative of women’s empowerment is powerful, homogenising and hegemonic! Yes, we all know that the garment export industry has been expanding in Bangladesh since the 1980s. The industry is growing due to what is often termed ‘cheap labour’ in the literature, especially women labour force and their ‘nimble fingers’ as they say. Much celebration is made of the garment owners in Bangladesh who earn the much-needed ‘foreign currency’ for the country’s exchequer. It is commonly held that it speeds up ‘our’ economic growth and GDP. It also claims that a large population, again the womenfolk of the country, who consist more than 80 per cent of the workforce in the garments of Bangladesh, is provided with a livelihood because of this sector.
While it is true that the recent two major ‘accidents’ in the garment sector has created some scope to discuss the huge anomalies that besets the sector, this comprises a small portion of the ‘media talk’. It seems as if the media is hell bent on focusing mainly on the GDP growth, the image of Bangladesh to the international market, etc. When it comes to worker’s issues and rights, the line of argument is hurriedly summed up in the following way:
If the garment factory is not there, then these women would be in a dire situation. The owners of the garments are the saviour of the poor village women of Bangladesh; otherwise, their life could have ended up in prostitution. (I am not making this up folks!)
Mainstream scholarly discussions are generally celebratory about women’s empowerment through paid work in the garment industry. Positivist approach in mainstream development discourse sees the expansion of garment industry and women labour as a blessing. Linda Lim and Naila Kabeer view the expansion of garment industry in global south and women’s inclusion in industry as a way of empowerment especially as a path for these women to escape ‘familial patriarchy’. Other researchers address the discriminatory environment in the factory setting but at the same time see it as a ‘marker of women’s empowerment’, especially in terms of different women’s empowerment indicators of mobility in public spaces, bargaining capacity in market and family. It misses the point that all this takes place at the cost of neoliberal economic transformation of the country. The process is carried out through the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that undermine the state-led development programmes. With neo-liberalism and free market economy, comes the ‘opportunity’ of ‘cheap labour’-intensive industry in Bangladesh.
It is interesting to note how the government, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association, labour union and activist members of women’s movement hold the positivist approach at the same time. However, what bothers me in this regard is this simple question: what kind of capacity is achieved by women in bargaining with the global and local market? Hester Eisenstein argued (the discussion is available at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCv3IaCfb1Q) that ‘neoliberal economy intensify the patriarchy and at the same time dismantle the patriarchy… Intensifying… sex trafficking, victim of corporate greed and other violence what’s being carried out in working class women. At the same time it has broken down patriarchy for the privilege women who have been selectively admitted to administering and managing class.’ I find this argument highly relevant to understand the condition of women in Bangladesh.
To clarify this point, I will just share a few facts from our own research at Activists Anthropologist:
It all started with a simple intent of listing the missing workers in the deadly fire of the Tazreen factory. The Tazreen case forces us to look at the poor worker’s condition that prevails in garment factories of Bangladesh. The workers were all locked up when the fire took place. The fire continued almost for the whole night. There was no proper exit. Flammable materials were found at the staircases. The fire safety certificate was expired too. We sadly discovered that 82 per cent of the missing workers of the Tazreen fire were female workers. Over the period of more than one year of our engagement, we talked to many of the Tazreen survivors, mostly female workers, who could not return to the factory work again, possibly they will never return again to factory work. Some reported that they may not be able to work in factory anymore in their lifetime. The latest: after two rounds of compensation, a third batch of relatives of the missing workers is waiting for compensation. There are still some missing workers whose relatives are waiting for DNA test result. They simply do not know when they will get the result or whether they will get the result at all.

To me these are clear indications of a new kind of victimhood in the cheap production oriented third world countries. If the female worker’s labour intensive garment work is seen as a path for these women to escape ‘familial patriarchy’, then what will be the escape route for them from the corporate patriarchy which is producing a new kind of victimhood? The mainstream liberal feminist idea seems to think that paid work outside the confines of the house represents women liberation. But how does this work for the working class people where the women are easier victims of corporate greed? It does not. Here are some female survivor’s statement from the Rana Plaza collapse (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Y6_rulRbOw&feature=youtu.be ) :
We did not want to go up [in the building]. We were beaten and forced to go inside the factory. [We] tried our best to come out. But they did not allow. PM, DM and Boss told us that someday you have to die. If death is written here, then you will die here. But you can’t go. Just work!
After Tazreen and Rana, many national and international human rights organizations have started to work amongst the victims of garments sectors. Perhaps, there will be hundreds of NGO projects developed. It is likely that these projects will have goals to establish justice in garments sector. And it is also very likely that there will be a ‘gender component’ for these projects. As after Beijing (UN women’s conference) the gender analysis is made mandatory in the policies, strategies, programming, etc. However, Carol Barton sees ‘the proliferation and integration of gender in all areas’ as ‘a process of “gender mainstreaming” that in practice has created a “gender industry’. As a process of gender mainstreaming, NGOs in Bangladesh employ a large number of female staffs and over the years the number has only increased. For example, Maheen Sultan in her article titled ‘Work for pay and women’s empowerment: Bangladesh’ mentioned that BRAC is the largest national NGO, has 22.86 per cent of female staff. CARE, one of the largest international NGO, has 29 per cent of female staff in Bangladesh. Clearly this data shows that it is creating opening for women of the middle class of Bangladesh.
In an interview long back, the maestro SM Sultan shared his view about the strength and spirit of the mass people (jono manush) of Bangladesh (see ‘Adam Surat’, a film directed by Tarek Masud). Sultan said ‘ajke jodi NGO na thake tahole shohorer lokera age mara jabe, gramer loker kichui hobe na. Gramer manushjon jane ei matir moddhe theke kemon kore uthe darate hoi, ghure dharate hoi (if there is no NGOs then it will affect the city people first. Nothing will happen with the mass people. Mass people know how to stand from this soil, how to rekindle their live).’ There is a popular slogan from the World Social Forum ‘another world is possible and another world is necessary’. On that note, Hester Eisenstein added a line: ‘but one requirement for creation of another world is the need to see the actually existing world clearly.’ Are we seeing our context clearly?

[Thanks to Mahmudul Sumon for editing the piece]

Originally published in the daily New Age special supplement published on 8 March 2014

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