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Journal of International Development J. Int. Dev. 16 , 93–109 (2004)

Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/jid.1065

GLOBALIZATION, GENDER AND POVERTY:

BANGLADESHI WOMEN WORKERS IN EXPORT AND LOCAL MARKETS

NAILA KABEER 1 AND SIMEEN MAHMUD 2 * 1 Institute of Development Studies, UK 2 Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, Bangladesh

Abstract: Economic liberalization in Bangladesh has led to the emergence of a number of export-oriented industries, of which the manufacture of ready-made garments is the most prominent. The industry currently employs around 1.5 million workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women. This paper explores the poverty implications of this new form of employment through a comparison of the socio-economic backgrounds, wages and working conditions and contributions to household needs of women working for global markets with those working for domestic markets. Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

1 INTRODUCTION: AIMS OF THE STUDY 1

Bangladesh is one of 189 countries that signed up to the Millennium Development Goals of which the first and overarching one is to halve world poverty by 2015. Its National Strategy for Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction (Government of Bangladesh, 2003) commits it to halving national poverty over the same time period. This paper examines one route through which this goal could be achieved, which is the enhancement of employment opportunties for women from poorer households. The focus on globalization in the paper is not intended to suggest that it is a necessary precondition for achieving this goal. But in Bangladesh, trade liberalization has been associated with a significant expansion of women’s paid employment in a context where they had previously limited access to such opportunities. To that extent, it is important to ask which women have benefited from this expansion and what this implies for the country’s efforts to reduce poverty. This expansion in employment has taken place in a number of export industries, but it is export garment manufacturing that accounts for the largest expansion. Consequently, this paper will analyse the relationship between globalisation, women’s employment and household

*Correspondence to: S. Mahmud, Senior Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, E-17, Agargaon, Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Dhaka-1207, Bangladesh. E-mail: simeen@sdnbd.org 1 This paper has been prepared as part of a research programme on globalisation and poverty funded by the Department for International Development of the UK government.

Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

94 N. Kabeer and S. Mahmud

poverty in Bangladesh through a focus on women workers in the export-oriented garment industry.

2 BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY

Although poverty levels have declined from over 70 per cent in the 1970s to 40 per cent in 2000, Bangladesh remains one of the poorest countries in the world (Government of Bangladesh, 2003). And while fertility has also declined from rates of around 7 children per women in the late seventies to around 3 today, it remains one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with around a million new entrants joining its labour force every year. The land frontier was reached several decades ago and while there is considerable scope for improving the productivity of agriculture through the spread of new high-yielding varieties, it is unlikely to generate sufficient employment for the existing labour force, let alone those who join each year. As a result, there has been increasing diversification into off-farm activities in rural areas and migration into urban areas in search of employment. However, for the majority of the poor who have no land, few assets and little education, low rates of return to their livelihood efforts remain significant barriers to their attempts to lift themselves out of poverty. If poverty is to be halved in Bangladesh, it will have to be through the continuing generation of employment opportunities which can absorb the large pool of ‘surplus’ labour in the countryside and contribute to the incomes of poor urban households. Bangladesh is also an extremely patriarchal society. It is part of a region of ‘extreme patriarchy’ where higher rates of female than male mortality at most ages resulted in adverse sex ratios ie. ‘abnormally’ fewer females than males within the overall population unlike the rest of the world where women generally outlive men (see discussion in Kabeer, 2003). The societies in this region tend to be characterized by the practice of female seclusion, patri-lineal principles of descent and inheritance, patrilocal principles of marriage and strict patriarchal authority structures within the family. Restrictions on women s mobility in the public domain mean that they either work as unpaid family labour or in forms of paid work that can be carried out within the home. The invisibility of such work has meant that the female labour force participation rates in these regions have tended to be extremely low. Official labour force statistics in Bangladesh, for instance, showed low, and largely unchanging, rates of female labour force participation: women’s share of total employment rose from 5 per cent in 1967 to just 7 per cent in 1987 (World Bank, 1990). However, patriarchal relations, like any other form of social relations, can be modified, intensified or transformed over time. While progress has been slow on many fronts in relation to gender equality in Bangladesh, there have been some remarkable achievements on others. There has been an improvement in the overall sex ratio from 109.7 men to every women in the population in 1951 to 105.5 in 1996 (Government of Bangladesh, 2001, p. 25). Gender disparities in gross enrollment ratios have been eliminated at primary level and reduced at secondary level. Bangladesh also pioneered micro-credit programmes which lend to women from poor and landless households on the basis of group-based collateral. These programmes have expanded women’s opportunities for self-employment in rural areas. However, social barriers to women’s participation in paid work outside the home remain and returns to women’s labour in these off-farm activities remain low (Kabeer, 2001; Rahman and Khandker, 1994).

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As a result, many women migrated into towns in search of work, either with their husbands if they were married, or on their own, if they were widowed, divorced or abandoned. Community-related constraints were less severe in the relative anonymity of urban areas and female participation in paid work tended to be higher. However, here too, gender biases kept women out of mainstream employment, confining them to casual waged work or self-employment in the informal economy. Men dominated formal, mainly public sector employment in government administration, nationalized banks and industry where pay and working conditions were far superior and trade unions more active. The rise of an export-oriented Ready-Made Garment industry, one result of trade liberalization policies adopted in the early 1980s, has helped to change the face of female employment in the country. Expanding from a handful of factories in the late 1970s to over 3500 by the mid-1990s, the industry now accounts for around a quarter of gross value added in the manufacturing sector and 75 per cent of foreign exchange earnings (estimates from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association). It has also generated considerable employment and, as in other parts of the world, this has been largely female employment. The percentage of working women in manufacturing rose from around 4 per cent in 1974 to around 55 per cent in 1985–86, while urban female labour force participation rates rose from around 12 per cent in 1983–84 to 20.5 per cent in 1995–96. The industry currently employs around 1.8 million workers of whom around 1.5 million are women (estimates from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association). The reasons for the female intensity of the workforce in the garment sector inter- nationally have been discussed extensively in the literature and will not be repeated here (Nash and Fernandez-Kelly, 1983; Elson and Pearson, 1981; Beneria, 2003). Suffice it to say that one strategy for survival in an intensely competitive global market, particularly in the labour-intensive stages of the production process, where a great deal of Bangladesh’s industry is located, has been the ‘primitive’ exploitation of labour: the extraction of maximum possible labour at minimum possible costs. As a section of the work force with few labour market choices, and lower returns to their labour than men with equivalent skills (or lack of skills), women workers offer employers the kind of low-cost and compliant labour force that helps them achieve this competitive advantage. The garment industry in Bangladesh is made up of a number of segments. Factories within the country’s export-processing zones (one in Dhaka and one in Chittagong) account for around 12 per cent of its employment. They are generally large, often employing several thousand workers, they operate with more complex and up-to-date machinery, deal directly with international buyers and a number have developed backward linkages, particularly with the local textile sector. While the government operates a ban on trade unions within the EPZs, wages and working conditions in these factories tend to be far superior to those elsewhere, primarily because of the pressure that can be exerted by buyers who are in turn under pressure from consumer lobby groups, NGO-led campaigns, student activists and northern labour movements concerned to improve working condi- tions in the factories from which their countries import clothing. Factories outside the EPZ consist of those which also deal directly with buyers and hence are under the same pressures to comply with their codes of conduct and others, which rely on some combination of direct and subcontracted orders. There is considerable variation here in size, profit margins and pressure from buyers and they merge imperceptibly into the informal economy, many offering wages and working conditions not very different from those found elsewhere in this section of the economy.

Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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N. Kabeer and S. Mahmud

3

A NOTE ON METHODOLOGY

A

major impact of globalization in the Bangladesh context therefore has been the very

visible increase in female employment in both absolute terms, and relative to men. The

aim of this paper is to consider the implications of this employment for the goal of poverty reduction. It attempts to do this through a comparison of women workers in the export garment industry and those working for the domestic market. This will allow it

to

assess which group of women have benefited from the opening up of the economy and

in

what ways. The data for the analysis comes from a survey of 1322 women workers and their

households carried out in 2001. The sample consisted of two broad categories of workers:

862 women working for the garment export sector and 460 women working in the

domestic market. The garment workers were themselves divided into two futher sub- categories: 125 from an EPZ located in the peri-urban outskirts of Dhaka city and 737 were from garment factories located within the city itself. The majority of the garment workers in our survey worked as machine operators. However, the EPZ sub-sample included many more supervisors/quality controllers (17 per cent) compared with the Dhaka sub-sample (2 per cent), perhaps because many more women were in these positions in the EPZs. In contrast, many more ‘helpers’ were included among the Dhaka garment workers (41 per cent) compared with the EPZ workers (24 per cent). Workers in the domestic economy were also made up of two sub categories: 119 self- employed women and 341 women working in various other forms of waged employment

(‘other waged workers’). These women were obviously spread over over a wider range of

occupations than the garment workers. Nevertheless, the gender segmentation of the labour market was evident in the fact that the majority were clustered into a limited range of occupations. Those in waged work were largely concentrated in domestic service, casual manual work, often on construction sites, and small-scale manufacturing while those in self-employment had their own small shops, tailoring businesses or worked in petty trade. All the workers in the sample, with the exception of the EPZ workers, were drawn from the same 8 bastee (slum) neighbourhoods in Dhaka in order to control for variations in their economic circumstances. The EPZ workers were an exception because they lived in rented housing which had sprung up in neighbouring villages around the zone specifically

in response to the presence of EPZ factories. Because there were few work opportunities

available for women outside the EPZ in these areas, it was not possible to select a ‘control group’ of women working for the domestic market. As we shall see, the EPZ workers proved to be ‘anomalies’ in a number of ways in the research. The analysis in this paper is based on a three-stage comparison of the different categories of workers in our survey. The first stage is a comparison of the socio-economic characteristics of the workers and their households in order to establish who they were and where they came from. The second stage is a comparison of their wages and working conditions in order to evaluate the quality of employment generated by global in relation to local market forces. The final stage is a comparison of the patterns of utilisation of the wages earned by women workers in order to assess the nature of their contributions to household basic needs. The concluding section of the paper draws together the findings from the different stages of analysis in order to reflect on what they tell us about the likely impact of globalization on the goal of poverty reduction in Bangladesh.

Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

J. Int. Dev. 16 , 93–109 (2004)

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4 SOCIO-ECONOMIC PROFILE OF WOMEN WORKERS

We start our analysis by exploring the history and background of the different categories of workers in our sample. Table 1, which provides a demographic profile of the workers, highlights the fact that the workers in our study were at very diffferent stages of their life course. The garment workers as a group, but particularly those in the EPZ, were younger, more likely to be single or, if they were married, to have fewer children. For instance, 48 per cent of ‘ever-married’ women in EPZ factories and 40 per cent in Dhaka factories had no children, while 32 and 39 per cent had just one child. Women working for domestic markets, particularly those who were self-employed, were at a later stage in their life course: they were older, more likely to be married and to have children: only 3 per cent of ever-married self-employed women and 10 per cent of other wage workers had no children while 22–25 per cent had just one child. Differences in stages of their life course partly explain differences in the occupational patterns of the workers. Factory work, particularly in export garment manufacturing where long hours of overtime are common, imposes a discipline which make it difficult for women to combine earning an income with caring for their families. Consequently, married women, particularly those with children, were generally found in self- employment or informal forms of wage employment where hours of work are likely to be more flexible or at least open to some negotiation. For instance, the domestic servants included in our sample were those who lived at home and worked a fixed number of hours a day for one or more employers. Our sample failed to include those domestic servants who lived with their employers and were at their beck and call 24 hours a day; these group would have found it difficult to reconcile paid work with child care. The vast majority of garment workers (over 90 per cent) had started their working life within the garment industry, usually in the previous five years. The remainder had started out in the same cluster of jobs that the non-garment workers were to be found in, viz. domestic service and cottage industry. While many of the women working for domestic markets also began out in occupations similar to those they were currently doing, it should be noted that 38 per cent of women who were currently self-employed and 25 per cent of ‘other’ waged worker had been garment workers at an earlier stage in their lives. In addition, 24 per cent of self-employed women reported some form of tailoring activity as their primary occupation. As might be expected, many of these had learnt their skills in the garment industry. This both confirms the ‘life-course’ element in women’s occupational choices and also suggests some degree of overlap between women working in the domestic and global economy.

Table 1.

Demographic characteristics by category of worker

Category of

Mean

Mean age

Single

Married

Divorced or

Mean no. of

worker

age

at start of

(%)

(%)

separated

children per

 

paid work

(%) ever-married woman

EPZ garment workers

21.8

17

38

57

5

0.7

Dhaka garment workers

21.2

17

45

43

9

1.0

Other waged workers

29.2

23

13

67

9

2.4

Self-employed workers

32.4

23

5

80

11

2.6

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98 N. Kabeer and S. Mahmud

Table 2.

Migration history and patterns by category of worker

Category of

Migrated

Mean no.

Migrated

Migrated

Migrated

Migrated Migrated

worker

from rural

of years

with

with

with

with

alone

location

in Dhaka

husband/

siblings

relatives

friends

(%)

(%)

parents

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

EPZ garment workers

98

4.9

37

24

26

1

10

Dhaka garment workers

82

5.5

47

17

20

3

4

Self-employed workers

73

14.1

62

7

5

2

5

Other wage workers

74

11.0

60

8

Tables 2, 3 and 4 provide information on the migration history, reasons for migration and current residential arrangments of the workers in our sample. They show that the overwhelming majority of garment workers, and a significant majority of the rest, had migrated to Dhaka from rural locations, but over very differing time periods. Those working for domestic markets, particularly the self-employed, had migrated more than a decade ago, mainly with their husbands or parents, the ‘associational’ pattern that typified female migration in earlier decades. They had also started work at a later stage in their lives. As might be expected, the most frequent reason given by this group for migration was ‘accompanying parents/husband’. However, a significant percentage of other waged

Table 3.

Reasons for migrating by category of worker

EPZ workers ( N ¼ 123) (%)

Dhaka garment workers ( N ¼ 663) (%)

Self-employed workers (N ¼ 98) (%)

Other wage workers ( N ¼ 282) (%)

Scarcity

9

16

16

21

Accmpanying parents/husband

14

27

45

37

Study

4

1

Seeking job

34

21

17

34

Seeking garment job

26

26

6

2

Visit

9

5

9

3

Death/sickness of breadwinner

3

1

2

1

Family conflict

1

3

1

2

Table 4

Current residential arrangements by category of worker

Category

Permanently

‘Divided’

Single

Mean

Rented

Housing

Purchase

of worker

settled in

household

person

household

accomodation

material:

water

Dhaka

arrangements households

size

(%)

durable

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

EPZ workers

28

34

10

3.9

100

77

0

Dhaka garment

22

31

4

4.7

90

24

8

workers

Self-employed

66

13

2

4.9

65

27

6

workers

Other wage

39

12

3

4.6

79

23

14

workers

Globalization, Gender and Poverty

99

workers had migrated in search of employment. The fact that they were also more likely than self-employed women to cite ‘scarcity’ as their reason for migrating suggests that they came from poorer backgrounds than the latter. The majority of garment workers had migrated within the last five years which is also when they had started paid work. Many more of this group were likely to have migrated alone or with siblings, relatives and friends, a less conventional form of female migration. The main reason given by this group for migration was the search for employment. The fact that many said that they had migrated explicitly in search of garment employment indicates the growing pull that the industry now exercises for female migration from rural areas. In addition, the fact that a higher percentage of Dhaka garment workers cited scarcity as a reason for migrating than EPZ workers suggests that they came from poorer backgrounds than the latter. Differences in patterns of migration resulted in differences in residential patterns. Women working for domestic markets, who had migrated to Dhaka over a decade ago, were generally at a more settled stage of their lives. They were more likely to be married, to live with their husbands and children and to consider themselves permanent residents of the city. In addition, a significant minorty owned the accomodation they lived in: 35 per cent of self-employed workers and 20 per cent of other wage workers. However, as Table 4 shows, most slum accomodation tended to be of makeshift rather than durable materials, whether it was owned or rented, and in some cases had no water supply. 14 per cent of other waged workers and 6 per cent of the self-employed had to purchase their water. The garment workers, on other hand, did not consider themselves permanent residents of the city. This partly reflected the large proportion of single women among their numbers: most expected to get married at some stage in the near future to men from their own or neighbouring village and hence expected to return to the countryside. The greater impermanency of their current arrangements is also evident in the fact that a third of garment workers (compared to only 12–13 per cent of non-garment workers) belonged to what we classified as ‘divided’ households: ie. households some of whose members lived elsewhere. This arrangement reflected the fact that many garment workers considered themselves to be members of the families they had left behind in the countryside. Garment workers were also more likely to be living in atypical residential arrangements ie. on their own or with co-workers, friends and other relatives rather than with husbands or parents. Many of those with children had left them behind with their families in the village. The overwhelming majority of garment workers—90 per cent of Dhaka garment workers and 100 per cent of EPZ workers—lived in rented accomodation. However the EPZ workers were more likely than any other category of worker to live in houses made of durable materials with access to their own water supply. It is already clear therefore that there were socio-economic differences between the different categories of workers and that these were particularly marked between EPZ workers and the rest. If ‘scarcity’ as the reason for migrating to the city is taken as a preliminary indicator of household poverty, the data in Table 3 suggests that EPZ workers came from the more prosperous end of the economic spectrum represented in our survey while other wage workers came from the poorer end. Dhaka garment workers and self- employed workers occupied an intermediate status between the two. This ranking is corroborated by some of the other indicators reported in Table 5. First of all, EPZ workers reported the highest mean annual household incomes, other wage workers report the lowest while the household income levels reported by the Dhaka garment workers and self-employed workers fell between the two with similar levels of

Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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100 N. Kabeer and S. Mahmud

Table 5.

Economic characteristics of households by category of worker

Category of

Mean

Experiencing

With no

With no

Mean years

Of adult

worker

annual

food

land

agricultural

of education

hh members

household

shortage in

(%)

land

per worker

with no

income

past year

(%)

education

(%)

(%)

EPZ garment workers

66052

4

58

76

8.4

10

Dhaka garment workers

53171

23

70

86

3.8

40

Self employed workers

52236

28

79

94

3.6

37

Other wage workers

45555

34

88

97

2.4

55

income. Secondly, the families of EPZ workers were least likely to have experienced a period of food shortage in the previous year (4 per cent) while other waged workers were most likely to have done so (34 per cent). Once again, Dhaka garment workers and self- employed women were in the intermediate category (23 per cent and 28 per cent). Data on landholding are an unreliable indicator of the household’s economic situation for those women in our sample who left the countryside over a decade ago and now consider themselves permanent residents of the city. However, among the garment workers, who have migrated more recently and still consider themselves to belong to rural families, the data serve to confirm that 70 per cent of those working in the Dhaka factories came from families who were entirely landless compared to just 58 per cent of EPZ workers. Data on education further corroborate the economic ranking suggested by the other indicators. The EPZ workers had an average of 8 years of education, much the highest in our sample while other wage workers, with an average of 2.4 years had the lowest. Once again, the Dhaka garment workers and self employed women occupied an intermediate status with broadly similar levels of education (3.8 and 3.6 respectively). While the higher levels of education among EPZ compared with Dhaka garment workers partly reflected the higher percentage of supervisors and quality controllers amongst the former group, it is also reflected genuine differences in their levels of education: over 50 per cent of EPZ workers had at least 8 years of education but only 17 per cent of them were supervisors/ quality controllers. Finally, data on the education of other family members tell us that only 10 per cent of EPZ workers came from families which had no educated adult members compared 37 per cent of self-employed workers, 40 per cent of Dhaka garment workers and 55 per cent of other wage workers. The findings in this section therefore tell a fairly consistent story about the different catetgories of workers in our sample. First of all, they tell us that the workers in the export garment industry were generally young, unmarried women or if married, unlikely to have children, who had migrated from the countryside within the past five years in search of employment, and specifically employment in the garment industry. Secondly, they tell us that the EPZ workers came from distinctly better-off backgrounds than Dhaka garment workers, and indeed, than other categories of workers in our sample. Dhaka garment workers and self-employed workers appeared to come from similar economic strata in terms of their education, education of other family members, experience of food shortage, family income levels, reasons for migrating and so on. Other wage workers were the poorest group in our sample. With the exception of the EPZ garment workers, therefore, the industry is recruiting from poor and landless families, but not necessarily the very poorest who are likely to be found in more casualised forms of wage work.

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And thirdly, these findings suggest that the degree of overlap we noted between export garment workers and workers in the domestic economy is largely an overlap between Dhaka garment workers and self-employed women. They suggest that a significant percentage of the women working in the Dhaka garment industry, who do not currently see themselves as permanent residents of the city, may not in fact return to the rural areas when they get married. Instead, the better-off among them will set up their own enterprises, perhaps building on their tailoring skills, while the poorer ones amongst them will take up other more flexible forms of waged work which can be combined with caring for their children.

5 WAGES AND WORKING CONDITIONS OF THE WOMEN WORKERS

We turn next to the wages and working conditions associated with the different categories of work represented in our sample in order to compare how women working for global markets fared relative to those working for local markets. Table 6 provides estimates of the maximum, minimum and average monthly income for each category of worker. Not surprisingly, given their higher levels of education, EPZ workers reported higher levels of average, maximum and minimum earnings than any other category. 2 Dhaka garment workers and self-employed women reported roughly similar levels of earnings while other wage workers reported the lowest levels. Returns to labour thus mirrored the economic ranking of workers: the poorer the worker, the more desperate her household, the lower her education, the fewer her options in the labour market and the lower the ‘reserve’ price of her labour. Focusing on the wages of the Dhaka garment workers, who make up the bulk of workers in the export sector, it should be noted that their average monthly earnings were roughly double the monthly per capita ‘poverty line’ income (725 takas in urban areas and 635 takas in rural areas in 2000, Government of Bangladesh, 2002), suggesting that they were able to support at least one other adult or two children with their earnings. While their monthly earnings varied, because of fluctuating overtime earnings, it never fell below the poverty line income in contrast to that of other wage workers. The next set of tables report on benefits and requirements in the work place by category of worker. However, they are confined to the three groups of wage workers in our sample

Table 6.

Mean monthly income in past year by category of worker (in takas)

Average monthly

income

Maximum

monthly income

Minimum

monthly income

EPZ garment workers

3014

3403

2305

Dhaka garment workers

1706

2019

1248

Self-employed workers

1799

2606

1256

Other wage workers

919

1215

699

2 To allow for the fact that part of the difference in monthly earnings reported by EPZ and Dhaka garment workers might reflect the fact that the former group included many women in the higher grades, we examined monthly returns separately for helpers, operators and higher grades for the two sets of workers. While wage differentials remained, they were considerably reduced.

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102 N. Kabeer and S. Mahmud

Table 7.

Indicators of ‘formality’ in working conditions by category of waged worker

Test on

Permanent

Received

Trade union presence

Heard of

entry

status

contract letter

in workplace

labour laws

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

EPZ garment workers

91

30

64

5

23

Dhaka garment workers

65

8

1

1

18

Other wage workers

16

12

4

0

3

Table 8.

Benefits enjoyed by category of waged worker

Paid

Maternity

Overtime

Tiffin

Child care Transport

Accomodation

Medical

leave

leave

pay provided facilities faciliities

(%)

care

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

EPZ garment

76

96

97

84

46

72

42

91

workers

Dhaka garment

37

60

83

28

7

3

3

63

workers

Other waged

29

18

8

2

2

0

0

13

workers

as much of the information does not apply to self-employed workers who determine their own working conditions. Tables 7 and 8 suggest that the EPZ factories most closely approximate ‘formal’ conditions of work. Their workers are more likely than the rest to be given a test on entry, to receive a contract letter of some sort, to enjoy paid leave and maternity leave, to receive overtime pay, tiffin at work, transport facilities, accomodation facilities, medical care at work and child care facilities. Workers in the Dhaka garment factories also received some of these benefits but to a lesser extent while other wage workers hardly received them at all. There was very little evidence of a trade union presence in any of the workplaces covered by our sample and the majority of workers, particularly other wage workers, had not heard of the country’s labour laws. Table 9 focuses on other aspects of working conditions which are likely to impinge on workers’ well-being. Once again, garment workers fared better than other waged workers, with EPZ workers faring best. They were most likely to have received a bonus in the past month, followed by Dhaka garment workers. None of the other waged workers had received such a bonus. EPZ workers were also most likely to know how overtime was

Table 9.

Other well-being related aspects of working conditions by category of waged worker

Recived

Knows

Money

Less than

Withhout

Income

Income

bonus in

how

earned on

10 hr

work for

increased

decreased

past

overtime is

regular

working

some time

in past

in past

month

calculated

basis

day

in past year

year

year

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

EPZ garment workers

43

30

98

30

20

81

4

Dhaka garment

25

16

85

72

29

60

10

workers Other wage workers

0

0

72

8

52

37

13

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calculated, followed by Dhaka garment workers. None of the other wage workers had this information, perhaps because so few received overtime pay. In fact, it is likely that very few did any overtime. They reported the shortest working day of the three categories of wage workers in our sample: only 8 per cent of them worked more than 10 hours a day, compared with 30 per cent in the EPZ and a staggering 72 per cent in the Dhaka garment factories. 3 However, while it is clear that Dhaka garment workers put in unacceptably long hours of work, the fewer hours of work put in by other waged workers were not necessarily an active choice on their part. Casualized wage work, while more flexible than formal factory work, can also entail high levels of underemployment. This is confirmed by the very high percentage of other wage workers who had been without work for some time in the past year—52 per cent compared with 29 per cent of Dhaka garment workers and 20 per cent of EPZ workers. Salway et al . (2004) confirm that manual wage labourers, in particular, worked fewer hours and also fewer days a month than other women workers, a matter of availability of work rather than preference. Given that so few of workers in any category considered themselves to have permanent status and given also the interruptions to work that many had experienced in the past year, a remarkably high percentage reported that they earned a regular income: 98 per cent of EPZ workers, 85 per cent of Dhaka garment workers and 72 per cent of other wage workers. Finally, 81 per cent of EPZ garment workers, 60 per cent of Dhaka garment workers and 37 per cent of other wage workers reported a rise in their earnings in the past year while 4 per cent of EPZ workers, 10 per cent of Dhaka garment workers and 13 per cent of other wage workers reported a decline. Data was also collected on what different categories of wage workers considered to be the most important advantages and disadvantages of their current employment. Regularity in the payment of salaries and overtime was identified as the most valued aspect of their employment by over 60 per cent of garment workers, both those within the EPZs as well as outside it. The next most frequently mentioned advantage by EPZ workers was the provision of meals at work while Dhaka garment workers cited the good conduct of management. Among ‘other’ wage workers, on the other hand, only 23 per cent identified regularity of salary/overtime as a positive aspect of their employment while another 27 per cent identified ‘working in a domestic environment’, presumably because it did not entail the public exposure faced by women working in factories. Also important among other wage workers were a cluster of advantages which referred to various aspects of flexibility in their use of time: 16 per cent referred explicitly to the the ability to work independently while a further 20 per cent referred to ‘less pressure at work’, ‘the ability to take leave when required’, ‘the absence of night duty’ and ‘proximity to the home’. As far as the main disadvantages were concerned, ‘low salaries’ featured most frequently for all three groups but particularly for ‘other wage workers’ (27 per cent compared with 15 per cent of general garment workers and 9 per cent of EPZ workers). Other disadvantages mentioned were management behaviour (Dhaka garment workers), irregularlity in overtime payments (Dhaka garment workers) and in salary (both garment and other wage workers) hard labour and difficulty of getting to work (other wage workers).

3 Again this is partly a life-cycle pattern. For instance, Salway et al . (2004) found that women and men in the slum areas that they studied put in similar hours into paid work a day (over nine hours), but that single women tended to work longer hours than married women.

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104 N. Kabeer and S. Mahmud

To sum up, therefore, the pay and working conditions reported by different categories of workers appeared to partly reproduce the socioeconomic ranking of their households. EPZ workers were, by far and away, the best off, enjoying more benefits, higher wages and better working conditions than any other category of waged worker. Other wage workers were at the poorer end of the occupational spectrum, earning lower and less regular wages, enjoying fewer or no benefits, experiencing a greater likelihood of periods without work and declining or static earnings in the past year. Secondly, given our interest in the impact of garment employment on poverty reduction, it is worth noting that garment workers in general earned enough to support themselves and at least one other adult member of their family at a standard of living above the poverty line. This is, of course, not a particularly high standard of living but it does suggest that certain minimum basic needs were met. Finally, it is worth noting that the responses of workers concerning the advantages and disadvantages of their employment suggested that married women faced a trade-off between regularity of income and flexibility needed to also take care of their children.

6 WOMEN’S WAGES AND HOUSEHOLD NEEDS

We have noted what different categories of workers earned from their occupations. The third stage of our analysis examines how these earnings were utilized. Table 10 suggests that all categories of workers in our sample contributed their wages to meeting basic needs: the most frequently mentioned uses of their incomes related to food, shelter, clothing and health. However, the differences noted earlier in the socio-economic status, stage of life course and current residential arrangements of the different categories did lead to some variations in their patterns of income allocation. First of all, the higher incidence of owner-occupied housing among self-employed and other wage workers explains why they were far less likely than garment workers to report contributions to rent as one of the uses of their wages. Secondly, the higher percentages of self-employed workers and other wage workers who used their wages to pay for children’s education is consistent with the fact that they were more likely to have children than the garment workers. Among garment workers, however, it was the EPZ workers who were more likely to contribute to children’s educatation, despite the fact they had fewer children; this could reflect the fact the EPZ workers themselves had far higher levels of education than did Dhaka garment workers.

Table 10.

Most important uses of earnings by category of worker

EPZ garment

workers

Dhaka

garment workers

Self-employed

workers

Other wage

workers

 

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

Rent

85

77

45

54

Food

86

82

89

79

Clothing

86

82

45

81

Medical expenses

44

38

46

43

Sent home

22

21

9

4

Savings

24

24

18

12

School fees

13

8

34

19

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Thirdly, both groups of garment workers are far more likely to remit some of their income ‘home’ than self-employed or other wage workers. Again, this is to be expected, given the higher incidence of ‘divided’ households in the former group, but it does indicate that garment employment was associated with some redistribution of income from urban to rural households. And finally, garment workers as a group, were more likely to save some of their wages than non-garment workers. Other wage workers, the poorest category in our sample, were least likely to report savings as a use of their wages. Direct questions regarding savings and remittances 4 provide some further insights into the use of women’s earning (Table 11). It suggested that 78 per cent of EPZ garment workers, the best paid and best off group in our sample, reported the ability to save compared with 31 per cent of other wage workers, the worst paid and poorest. Of the intermediate categories, 54 per cent of self-employed workers and 46 per cent of Dhaka garment workers were able to save. EPZ workers were more likely to keep their current savings in banks while self employed workers were most likely to keep their money with an NGO. One reason for the latter finding was that self-employed workers were more likely to belong to an NGO: 34 per cent compared with 11 per cent among other wage workers and around 2–5 per cent among garment workers. Similar percentages of the two groups of garment workers reported sending remittances (29–33 per cent) compared with self-employed and other wage workers (10–13 per cent). Less than 5 per cent of workers in all categories had received any form of material help from their families. There is thus a net flow from urban to rural areas, particularly among garment workers’ households. Our final set of tables considers the main benefits and drawbacks of employment for workers’ households and for workers themselves. Table 12 shows that ‘economic solvency’ of the family (having enough income to support family expenditures) and ‘financial support to the family’ were cited by over 65 per cent of EPZ workers, Dhaka garment workers and self-employed workers and 55 per cent of other wage workers as the main benefits of their earnings for their families. The more modest benefit of a ‘reduced burden on the family’ was cited by a further 10 per cent of the garment workers and between 4–6 per cent of self-employed and other wage workers. Other wage workers, the poorest in our sample, were more likely than the rest to cite specific examples of basic needs satisfaction: the ability to have three meals a day, to purchase clothing/household amenities, regular payment of rent and medical expenses. Over 80 per cent of all categories of workers said that there were no disadvantages to their current employment from the household point of view (table not shown). Of those that did state a disadvantage, neglect of domestic chores featured most prominently.

Table 11.

Ability to save and remit by category of worker

Category of

Able to

Sent money

Saved

Saved with

Saved with

Gold

worker

save

to family

in bank

informal group

NGO

jewellery

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

EPZ garment workers Dhaka garment workers Self-employed workers Other wage workers

78

33

25

1

1

66

46

29

7

4

3

34

54

13

5

6

24

56

31

10

3

8

9

31

4 These included question on whether women saved or not, what they did with their savings, did they send any money to other familiy members and did they receive any money from other family members.

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106 N. Kabeer and S. Mahmud

Table 12.

Main benefits of women’s employment for their households

EPZ garment

Dhaka garment

Self-employed

Other wage

workers (%)

workers (%)

workers (%)

workers (%)

Economic solvency

38

31

33

27

Financial support to family

31

36

36

28

Reduced burden on family

11

10

4

6

3 meals a day

14

17

20

22

Regular payment of rent

5

11

8

11

Capacity to save

4

2

2

2

Clothes/amenities

1

3

4

8

Children’s education

8

8

18

12

Remittances

6

6

2

Medical expenses

1

2

3

6

Reduction of debt

1

3

4

1

Note: The figures represent the two most important benefits to their households mentioned by workers.

Table 13.

Main benefits of current employment for the workers

EPZ garment

Dhaka garment

Self employed

Other wage

workers (%)

workers (%)

workers (%)

workers (%)

Contribution to family budget

3

3

4

2

Bearing own expenses

42

52

46

42

Economic self-reliance

39

29

27

44

Overcoming want

5

9

3

6

Ability to save

11

18

10

5

Status/mental wellbeing

5

5

7

4

None

2

6

3

13

Note: The figures represent the two most important personal benefits mentioned by workers.

As far as the benefits of employment for workers themselves, variations on the theme of reduced financial dependence featured as the most frequent response for all categories of workers: over 80 per cent in each category either cited ‘bearing own expenses’ or ‘economic self-reliance’ as the main benefit of their employment. It should also be noted that only 2 per cent of EPZ workers and 3 per cent of self-employed workers were not able to cite any personal benefits from their employment compared to 6 per cent of Dhaka garment workers and 13 per cent of other wage workers. The main drawback of their employment from the workers’ perspective related to effects on their health, more frequently cited by Dhaka garment workers and other wage

Table 14.

Main drawbacks of current employment from workers’ perspective

EPZ garment

Dhaka garment

Self-employed

Other wage

workers (%)

workers (%)

workers (%)

workers (%)

Effects on health

9

24

14

21

Hard labour

4

7

17

10

Neglect of children

5

3

2

2

Away from family

2

3

1

None

74

56

65

62

Poor health status

13

29

29

30

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workers, and heavy work burden, particularly among self employed and other wage workers. It should be noted in this connection that around a third of Dhaka garment workers, self-employed workers and other wage workers complained of suffering from poor health status compared to just 13 per cent of EPZ workers. It should also be noted that EPZ workers were least likely to cite any personal drawbacks to their present employment and that Dhaka garment workers were the most likely to do so.

7 CONCLUSION: GLOBAL MARKETS, WOMEN’S WORK AND HOUSEHOLD POVERTY

We are now in a position to pull together the various findings provided by our survey data and consider their implications for the question that this paper set out to address. It is clear that the export industry is largely drawing on young women, most of whom are either unmarried or else married without children, who migrate into Dhaka and its environs in search of employment, often specifically garment employment. However, it is also clear that EPZ factories draw on considerably more educated workforce from considerably more prosperous families than does the rest of the industry. The employment of these women is unlikely to have any direct impact on poverty in Bangladesh. Women working in the Dhaka garment factories, on the other hand, came from poorer sections of the rural population and appeared to have more in common economically with other workers from the same bastees than they did with EPZ workers from the same industry. With the exception of EPZ factories, therefore, which in any case account for a very small percentage of overall employment in the industry, the export manufacturing of garments in Bangladesh can be said to have generated employment opportunities that have directly benefited women from the poorer sections of the rural population. Moreover, it has provided these opportunities in a context where women had hitherto been marginalised from mainstream forms of employment and confined to casualized and badly paid work in a limited number of occupations or to unpaid family labour. The fact that most of the women working in the garment industry have entered the labour force for the first time suggests that the industry is adding to the quantity of employment available to women rather than subsituting for jobs that have displaced in other sectors. 5 However, the garment industy is clearly discriminating against the very poorest women in the population. Only a small minority of other wage workers, the poorest group in our sample, had worked in the industry at any stage in the past. The second aspect of the relationship between household poverty and women’s employment examined in the paper relates to the returns to employment and the uses to which these returns were put. The EPZ workers earned far higher wages on average than the other three categories of workers included in our sample but in as much as they came from households likely to be above the poverty line, their wages did not contribute directly to the reduction of household poverty. The Dhaka garment workers, on the other hand, earned enough to meet their own basic needs and to contribute to the basic needs of other family members. While their earnings were less than those reported by self-employed women, many of whom had the benefit of access to NGO loans, they were considerably higher than those earned by women in wage employment outside the garment industry

5 Of course, globalization has led to the loss of jobs as well, mainly for men, but the fact that overall poverty is on the decline suggests that the gains have so far outweighed the losses in terms of quantity of employment.

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108 N. Kabeer and S. Mahmud

whose monthly earnings often fell below the per capita poverty line. Remittances by garment workers to their families in the countryside can be seen as mechanism for the redistribution of income from urban to rural areas, where much of the poverty in Bangladesh is concentrated. The third aspect of the relationship between women’s employment and household poverty relates to working conditions associated with the different sectors covered by our study. Although trade unions are banned in the EPZs, buyer pressure has ensured that working conditions in EPZ factories most closely approximated those of the formal sector. However, these improvements in working conditions have mainly benefited more educated women from better-off families who are the favoured workforce in these factories. While labour standards in the rest of the industry were lower, particularly in factories where buyer pressure had less direct effect, they were still an improvement on working conditions in alternative forms of waged employment available to women from low- income households: wages were more regular and the level of benefits higher. The key criteria by which garment workers appeared to be worse off than other wage workers related to length of the working day. On the other hand, the fewer hours a day worked by other wage workers and the self-employed was not necessarily a matter of choice but of the unavailability of work. Employment in the export garment industry cannot be said to represent an unambiguous improvement on the conditions of work prevailing elsewhere in the economy. Our findings suggest that turnover in the garment industry is high, with the current workforce reporting an average of less than five years in employment within the industry. It is clear that garment employers regard their female workforce as dispensable labour to be exploited ruthlessly for a period of time and then replaced by the apparently unlimited supply of young women flowing in from the countryside in search of such work. It is equally clear that many garment workers do not regard their jobs as a sustainable option for their future. Some leave because of the toll the work takes on their health; others when they get married, or more frequently, when they have children. However, as long as they are in the industry, they hope to work as hard as they can in order to accumulate some savings for their future. Those who are successful will set up their own businesses when they leave, in some cases, using the skills they acquired in the garment industry. Those who are less successful will take up informal wage work where wages may be lower but hours are sufficiently flexible to combine with their domestic and child care responsiblities. Finally, however, there is one other finding from our study which bears on the implications of the garment industry for the lives of women in Bangladesh which is only partly related to poverty. In a society which defines men as the primary, and even sole, breadwinners and privileges male access to employment, women historically have been defined, and have experienced themselves, as economic dependents within the family. Such a dependency status is not confined to poor women although it is likely to be exacerbated by poverty. It is clear from their responses that many women are beginning to chafe at this sense of being a burden on their families. The most frequently cited benefit of their employment from their personal perspective related to the greater sense of self- reliance it gave them, the lessening of the burden on their families and their ability to stand on their own feet. The significance of export garment industry does not lie in the fact that it has provided this possibility for greater self-reliance for the first time to women in Bangladesh, but that it has provided it on a scale that is historically unprecedented. It has expanded the number of women who are able to achieve a degree of self-reliance and economic agency within

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the family and it has made visible the significance of their economic contribution to their families. It consequently presents a radical challenge to the myth of the male breadwinner model of the family in Bangladesh. It may be that the phasing out of the MFA over the coming years will lead to a major decline in the industry and that many of these women will lose their jobs, but the recognition of the importance of women’s paid work to the survival of poor families and to the goal of poverty reduction in Bangladesh will hopefully outlast the industry.

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