The number of women workers in the readymade garment industry is on a steady decline of which these two women are a part. This correspondent last month spoke to 11 women who had lost their jobs from the garment industry during the pandemic. Seven of them managed to join garment factories again after being unemployed for a year and a half. The other four are still without jobs.

Owners and labour leaders of the readymade garment sector say two years ago, with the corona outbreak, foreign buying houses and brands extensively cancelled and suspended purchase orders, and the factory owners panicked. Even though the government declared stimulus packages, most of the factories laid off large numbers of workers. And a considerable portion of the laid off workers were women. When purchase orders began to increase again towards the middle of last year, the factories began hiring again. However, many could not return to their jobs. Even those who did, are still reeling under the financial crisis caused by the long spell of unemployment.

In order to overcome the impact of coronavirus, on 25 March 2020, the government announced a Tk 50 billion (5000 crore) stimulus package to pay the labour wages in the export sector including the readymade industry. Even so, given the cancellation and suspension of orders, from April worker layoff began in the garment sector. The labour ministry even made an appeal not to lay off the workers. The garment factory owners pledged that workers would not be laid off and even assured that those who had lost their jobs would be reinstated. But that amounted to nothing. Only very few of the laid off workers got their jobs back.

There are no specific records of exactly how many workers were laid off during the prevalence of coronavirus. However, speaking at a virtual meeting organised by BRAC University’s Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED) in October 2020, the president of the apex body of Bangladesh’s readymade industry owners BGMEA, Rubana Huq, said that 70,000 garment workers had been laid off from 106 factories.

However, even from even beforehand, the number of women workers had been decreasing in this top export sector of the country due to various reasons.

A report of the Asian Centre for Development (ACD) said before 2015, around four million people would work in the garment sector and 65 per cent of them were women. In 2020 the percentage of women and men workers was 60 and 40 respectively. From 2015 to 2020, every year the number of workers in the garment sector increased by one per cent. While male workers increased by four per cent, female workers increased by 0.7 per cent.

Why the fall in women workers?

Towards the beginning of the corona outbreak, 35-year-old Zakia, who worked in the quality section of a factory in Nishchintpur, Ashulia, lost her job. She had worked for one and a half years in the factory and received a monthly wage of Tk 15,000. She said last month there had been announcements made over loudspeakers in the area that the factories would be hiring but she is no longer interested. She has her husband and children at home. She says at the start of the pandemic she had gone home due to the lockdown. She lost her job because she was two days late in returning.

There are many reasons that the women have lost their jobs or are not returning. Persons connected to the sector say over the past few years there has been a lot of automation in the garment factories and installation of advanced machinery. Know-how is required to use such equipment. Also, with wages increasing in the sector, now men are more eager to join than before.

From 2017, BRAC University’s Centre for Entrepreneurship Development Centre, under the Mapped in Bangladesh (MIB) project, has been recording data on the export oriented readymade garment sector, the number of workers and other details. According to their records, 3723 factories have joined the digital map till 30 March. The workers in these factories are 58 per cent women and 42 per cent men.

Just a decade ago, 80 per cent of the garment workers were women. The BGMEA leaders would proudly say that the readymade garment sector had a huge contribution to women’s empowerment in the country.

President of Bangladesh National Garments Workers Employees League, Sirajul Islam, said that previously there was at least one helper for every two operators in the factories. Now the bigger factories have advanced equipment and so no longer need helpers. Also, the owners are reluctant to pay the laid off workers’ dues. In many cases the workers have to file cases. That is why many women are distressed over their jobs and many change their profession.

Managing director of Plummy Fashions, Md Fazlul Hoque, also feels that there has been a drop in women workers in the garment industry during the coronavirus times. He said, during the lockdown, many lost their jobs and went to the villages. This was higher among the women than the men. Many of them have found other sources of income in the villages and opt to stay there rather than return to the city.

Fazlul Hoque said, 52 per cent of the workers in Plummy Fashions are women and 48 per cent men at present. Before corona this was 56 per cent and 44 per cent, he said.

Struggling to make ends meet

Nilufar (27) who lost her garment factory job during the corona pandemic, said towards the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, she suffered from kidney complications had had to take leave. Then just within a few days of returning to work, she lost her job. She was not given any compensation. As an operator she would receive a monthly wage of Tk 9,500. She says she has a five-year-old son. Her husband works in a fish farm. They are struggling and she needs to start working again immediately.

Head of the Garments Workers Solidarity, Taslima Akhter, told Prothom Alo that many factories had shut down during coronavirus. Things may be back to normal, but some of the garment facilities did not reopen. Many of the workers of those factories remain without jobs.

Vice president of BGMEA, Md Shahidullah Azim, feels that many of the laid off workers who have not returned to work are not rejoining on their own accord. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said that perhaps some of them are making a good living in their villages. There is a shortfall of around 200,000 to 250,000 workers in the garment industry now. All the factories have put up job vacancy notices.

Restarting from scratch

Speaking recently to three women workers at a garments factory in Mirpur, it was learnt that they had been laid off during the pandemic. They have their jobs back now. One of them said when she was laid off one and a half years ago, she was paid Tk 40,000. She had gone to stay with her mother in Chandpur. With no income, she spent from that money. When she came back to Dhaka and rejoined work in March, she was almost empty handed.

Another woman worker said after when lost her job, she wasn’t finding any new one. Her husband sells scrap items to earn money for the family, but even that was not doing well. In the meantime, she got pregnant. She spent on the money she got from the factory after being laid off, on the family.

As the women workers had limitations in operating such hi-tech equipment, they were falling behind. In many instances, women do not have to scope for training as men do. So if women are to be retained in the sector, importance must be given to their training

A husband and wife would work at a garments factory in Ashulia. They too lost their jobs during the corona outbreak. The husband began riding a rickshaw while the wife was jobless. A year later she got a job at a garments factory for a comparatively lower salary than before.

Joint secretary of the ministry of labour and employment Md Humayun Kabir, speaking to Prothom Alo, said there is no specific study on exactly how many have returned to the factories after losing their jobs. But garments exports have returned to normal. Most workers are back at work. He said that the European Union had provided financial support for the workers who had lost their jobs. He said 9000 workers received Tk 3000 in three installments.

BRAC University’s Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ) in June last year published a survey report on the impact and challenges of corona on low income people. There were 1064 men and women covered in the survey. Of them, 424 were of the garment industry of which 76 per cent were women. Garments workers who were part of the survey said their monthly incomes have gone down by 21 per cent. They had to dip into their savings to run their families. They had to borrow. And they cut down on their food too, said 38 per cent of them.

Research director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Khandakar Golam Moazzem, speaking to Prothom Alo, said the garment sector was undergoing technological changes. Workers skilled in operating various types of machinery were now in demand. As the women workers had limitations in operating such hi-tech equipment, they were falling behind. In many instances, women do not have to scope for training as men do. So if women are to be retained in the sector, importance must be given to their training. After all, this sector plays a role in women’s economic empowerment. That calls for the women workers to be trained.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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