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The Question of Empowerment

RMG employment has wrought broad change in women's lives and gender relations in Bangladesh. A recent analysis found the industry had played a 'key role in the remarkable progress Bangladesh has made in improving women's lives over the past 40 years' (Heath and Mobarak 2015, 13). The transition to women's factory work can be contentious and conflictual, and change does not come overnight. But factory work offered women the 'power to choose', bringing with it new internal strength and stronger bargaining power at home (Kabeer 2002). Factory work was a step up, or a step away, from the domination of the patriarch at home, the meagre returns of rural enterprise, or the 'choice' of barely paid and oppressive domestic service.[1]

Garments (and other income-earning) work is contributing to emerging norms of conjugal equity and complementarity (Schuler etal. 2013), and, depending on the kind of work, to empowerment in spheres from the household to public and civic domains (Kabeer et al. 2011). It has dramatically feminized the public space, giving visibility and significance to women and their labour (Hossain 2012). Millions of individual women have been financially better off, and shared social and public institutions have become somewhat more equitable; women are increasingly viewed and treated as worker-citizens, at least by the state. RMG employment clearly played a role in that, not least because the political and business elite could see the benefits in an argument that alchemized low-waged factory labour into socially transformative women's empowerment. Garments workers were the 'new golden girls' of the nation, labour leader Nazma Akhter stated, drawing a direct line to Sonar Bangla cultural ideals about national prosperity. Siddiqi notes that:

[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)

The factory may have represented an escape from family patriarchs, but never a total escape from patriarchal control (Kibria 1995; 1998). The factory was itself a site of domination: women remained under powerful and still gendered modes of control in 'a highly policed, mechanised domesticity' (Siddiqi 2000, L14). Women were expected to be docile and grateful for paid employment, and less likely to organize for labour rights. But factory work is exhausting, a relentless grind that requires immense stamina; few women can last more than a few years (Mahmud and Kabeer 2003; Kabeer and Mahmud

2004). The work is welcome, even if the conditions can be dangerously poor. On being arrested for protesting about lack of compensation for the Rana Plaza disaster, Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity was at pains to stress her support for the industry:' "These jobs are important," she said. "My very clear message: 'We want these jobs, but we want these jobs with dignity.' There is no point asking for a boycott."' (Greenhouse 2015).

Exposure to the volatilities and pressures in the global economy since 2007 has shown that this group has no effective protection of their jobs, their conditions of labour, safety at work, or (because pay is not inflation-indexed) their real earnings. Workers are effectively blocked from building the kinds of organizations that would collectively articulate and defend those and other interests. Credible sources charge the state with joining employers in union-busting, and in recent years labour leaders have been harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed (Muhammad 2011; Ganguly 2015). Collective empowerment to address the conditions of labour through trades unions remains a distant prospect.

  • [1] Kabeer and Mahmud (2004) found that RMG sector workers were generally from slightly lesspoor backgrounds than other wage workers (including live-out maids);Karim (2014) similarlynotes that, despite its hardships, rural women preferred factory work to domestic services, whichis notorious for physical, mental, and sexual abuse;see also Blanchet (1996).
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