The Delusion of Women Empowerment in the Ready-made Garments Industry of Bangladesh


The Readymade Garments industry is one of the booming industries of Bangladesh in current times. The products produced are of export quality and count up to lion share of the GDP of the country. This has led to an increased rate of economic growth over the years. Foreign clothing brands and companies of the United States are the leading importers of these readymade garments. The main reason Bangladesh has become one of the leading garments exporting countries is because of the availability of cheap labor. This labor force, however, consists of mostly women and a prompted portrayal of women empowerment through their participation in the overall economic growth. This article, however, aims to show how a disguised concept of women empowerment has been used as a constructed political as well as socio-cultural term. In addition to that, this article aims to find out whether under the veil of women empowerment they are facing discrimination in the RMG sector.


The Readymade Garments industry acts as a catalyst for the development of Bangladesh. The “Made in Bangladesh” tag has also brought glory for the country, making it a prestigious brand across the globe. Bangladesh has transformed itself from being termed as a “bottomless basket” to a “basket full of wonders.” Dhaka Tribune on 5th July 2018 had published an article claiming, ‘Bangladesh’s export earnings from the apparel sector registered an 8.76% growth reaching $30.61 billion in FY18, thanks to safety improvements.’ This line gives a distinctive idea of how much the readymade garments industry has been flourishing recently and bringing out the best result outcome in terms of increased Economic growth. The article further claimed that this RMG sector alone employs 40 million people of which most are women. They contribute 83.49% to Bangladesh’s total exports of $36.66 billion to date. These data are enough to show the extensive progress Bangladesh is heading towards through its RMG sector. Bangladesh is all set to graduate from the Least Developed Country (LDC) by 2024 and becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2031. This massive transformation is not only confined to economic growth but rather this growth also takes into account gender equity and women empowerment.

Bangladesh has become a much lucrative location for foreign companies to invest in. Firstly, the availability of cheap labor and secondly due to the availability to be able to exploit the laborers under the delusion of empowerment. Women have played a significant role in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector. While the share of men and women employed in manufacturing is roughly the same, about 80-85% of women are employed in the RMG sector. This clearly illustrates that as women are in the vast majority recruited, they are also most likely being exploited and might face discrimination.Moreover, there is almost no safety for women in the workplace. Although there might be safety procedures to maintain the security of the workers, the owners are mostly busy with profit maximization. Even though there are no security or safety guarantees, women still prefer a job in the RMG sector. This is because it is believed that marginalized and low-skilled women from developing countries can now have access to employment and an opportunity to develop. However, this could only be a delusion whereas the reality could be that under this disguise of women empowerment, women in most cases working in the RMG sector tend to face much more discrimination.


RMG sector of Bangladesh: Economic Growth and the role women are playing.

Given the socio-economic structure of Bangladesh, it has been less favorable for females to participate in the labor force and earn a wage. Over time, however, the trend has changed, wherefrom mere unpaid agricultural and household jobs women have shifted to urban areas and also have active participation in the labor force. There have been tremendous opportunities given to women mostly from the rural areas to work on. Women joining the labor force previously had no self-sufficiency as they were not financially reliable. These women after they have started working in the RMG sector also have a voice in the family, in the society as they no longer a burden, but are bread-earning members. In addition to that, employed women are more likely to have more decision making power and freedom in the family. This eventually makes them more empowered.  The positivity of society towards the employment of women has steered increased participation of female workers in the labor force, for instance, one such survey conducted by the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in 2012 showed that for 86 percent of the female workers work in the garment industry was the maiden wage employment. Following that, the credentials could be attributed to the advent of the readymade garments sector in Bangladesh could be termed as a blessing as it has given a trigger rise to the overall economic growth of the country. Figure 1 below will illustrate the overall Exports of Bangladesh from the RMG sector since the millennium which has been provided by the Bangladesh garments Manufacturer and exporters Associations (BGMEA).



2000-01 4859.83 6467.30 75.14
2001-02 4583.75 5986.09 76.57
2002-03 4912.09 6548.44 75.01
2003-04 5686.09 7602.99 74.79
2004-05 6417.67 8654.52 74.15
2005-06 7900.80 10526.16 75.06
2006-07 9211.23 12177.86 75.64
2007-08 10699.80 14110.80 75.83
2008-09 12347.77 15565.19 79.33
2009-10 12496.72 16204.65 77.12
2010-11 17914.46 22924.38 78.15
2011-12 19089.73 24301.90 78.55
2012-13 21515.73 27027.36 79.61
2013-14 24491.88 30186.62 81.13
2014-15 25491.40 31208.94 81.68
2015-16 28094.16 34257.18 82.01
2016-17 28149.84 34655.90 81.23
2017-18 30614.76 36668.17 83.49
2018-19 34133.27 40535.04 84.21
2019-20 27949.19 33674.09 83.00

  Data Source Export Promotion Bureau, Compiled by BGMEA

Figure 1: Statement on Export of RMG and total export of Bangladesh.


The statistical data are shown in the Fiscal year 2018-2019 depicts that there has been a gradual increase in the percentage of RMG’s in the total Exports of the country. More export means the country has a market abroad where its product is sold and there reside the real consumers of the product. Bangladesh exports its RMG products mostly to the United States as it considers Bangladesh to be its fifth sourcing destination. Moreover, Bangladesh has offered much more competitive pricing than other developing countries. For instance, in 2017, Bangladesh earned $5.06 billion from its export of garments to the US. The rise in Export eventually leads to the overall growth of the economy. Therefore, it is evident that RMG has been one of the industries of Bangladesh which has triggered up economic growth. Following that, there has been a tremendous rise in female participation in the manufacturing sector, this has been illustrated by a figure shown below.


1999/00 2005/06 2010 2013 2015/16 2016/17
Manufacturing 9.5% 11.0% 12.4% 16.4% 14.4% 14.4%
Male 7.4% 10.8% 12.7% 13.9% 14.2% 14.0%
Female 17.9% 11.5% 11.7% 22.5% 14.9% 15.4%

Data Source: Labor Force Survey

Figure 2: Female participation in the Manufacturing industry of Bangladesh.


From the figure 2 above, it can be illustrated that there has been a sharp rise in female employment in the manufacturing sector since 2013, from 11.7% in 2010 the share rose to 22.5% in 2013. This remarkable rise is consistent with the sharp rise in RMG exports and the corresponding increase in the number of factories in the RMG sector during 2010 and 2013. This high rise in RMG exports eventually marked an increased demand for female workers in the manufacturing and mostly garments industry.

Read More: A Quick Look through the Gender Lens

Nevertheless, in the current context, due to the discriminations female workers are facing in the RMG sector and of about 92% of technological automation in the RMG sector since 2010 have shown a declining trend in women’s participation in the labor force. This is because, often female workers are not capable of having a dual burden, both at the workplace due to extra training and learning about different automation and after the office hours they have their household chores. This has been illustrated in Figure 3 below, where two surveys have been conducted by two different sources.


The survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) A survey conducted by the government and other organizations: Female workers in the garments sector
2013 Male 43.14% 2010 Female 63 %
Female 56.86%
2019 Male 53.82% 2018 Female 60%
Female 46.18%

Figure: 3 Survey conducted to show the decline in the female workers in the RMG sector


Does Empowerment always come from Employment?

During the 1980s, RMG had become the first industry to provide large-scale employment opportunities to women in Bangladesh, in a country where women traditionally did not work outside their home. Girls and women were only allowed to stay at home and do all the household chores but things began to change due to the liberal nature of the market. Globalization has played a key role here and led to the formation of the industries. Owners, on the other hand, to hold the pace of capitalism must recruit as much labor as possible and that is also cheap labor, so that profit maximization could be ensured. Although the female workers joining the labor force has extensively increased, the question still lies, does empowerment comes from employment? This conundrum has first been initiated by the western world claiming that the women from the third world will be empowered only if they have financial freedom. It was the common belief that economic opportunity and integration in the global economy will eventually lead to the empowerment of women. There are several reasons, however, which discusses that empowerment is often disguised by discrimination at the workplace for the women employees in the RMG sector;


  • Low ranks and no leadership opportunities

Women are not easily entitled to any promotion. They remain at the same position or rank for years, whereas their male colleagues often are easily promoted to a higher rank within months. Data collected from factories, 4 out of every 5 production line workers are female, whilst just over 1 in 20 supervisors is a woman. If indeed workers were promoted based on merit, this would mean that currently, 95 percent of the managerial talent in factories emerges from 20 percent of the workforce. Additionally, the same scenario from a different survey pointed out that all the higher position ranks like managing director, director, general manager, assistant general manager, merchandiser manager, merchandiser, chief account officer, account officer, commercial officer, assistant commercial officer, where only men are appointed.

  • Wage Gaps

Despite working more than the usual working hours, female workers still face wage discrimination and are paid far less than male workers. There are prevalent gendered biases when it comes to payment. In most cases, it is being assumed that males are ought to be more efficient than females based on the stereotypical meritocracy, which is being applied when it comes to payment. Large numbers of the garments factory do not follow the new minimum wage fixed at BDT 5300 (US$ 68). However, it not only about wage discrimination, but female workers also receive their salary late.

  • Gender biased accumulation of jobs

It is assumed that female workers are ought to be less skilled and not appropriate for high-rank jobs. As a result in most cases, female workers are merely kept as sewing operators. Additionally, the idea accumulated that young girls are not entitled to proper education as a child, thus they are assigned with less technical jobs. Moreover, the advent of more advanced automation has substituted laborers with machines. In this case, female workers are more in a disadvantageous position compared to their male counterparts.

  • Sexual Harassment

In most cases, female workers face sexual harassment at their workplace. According to a study, about 3% of women have faced sexual harassment at their workplace. Female workers often complain that there are common restrooms for both male and female workers, wherein most of the cases females are harassed in lack of proper surveillance and absence of CCTV cameras.

  • Poor working conditions

The availability of cheap labor is the only thing the factory owners prioritize. Hence, they often fail to ensure proper working conditions for women. There is a lack of ventilation and sunlight in the factory buildings, which affects both their physical and mental health. The unfavorable working condition leads to women’s health risks and some extent life-threatening accidents, for example, the 2013 Rana Plaza accident.

  • Maternity Rights declined

One of the crucial legal rights according to the Bangladesh labor law is female workers are entitled to get paid maternity leave. However, in most cases, pregnant female workers have little knowledge about this law and also the application procedures. Garments managers often use maternity leave as an excuse for firing female workers. As a result, pregnant females prefer working till the last stages of their pregnancy to meet the ends and endangering both their and the baby’s life.

  • Overtime works

Female workers are required to work overtime, often all night when any shipment arrives late at night, with no day off the next morning. In most cases, the overtime is recorded fraudulently, hiding the actual workers worked. These long hours of work have an adverse impact on the lives of female workers, as they are less likely to take care of their families and kids.



In conclusion, it could be stated that Empowerment does not always necessarily mean financial or economic freedom. Even though women in the 21st century can get into the labor force and earn money does not guarantee their empowerment. This is due to the many underlying factors, which also need to be considered. The yardsticks of women empowerment in Bangladesh is such that, if women are participating in the labor force, then it is automatically assumed that they are empowered as well. To prove the point, this scenario has been highlighted through the RMG sector, because many underprivileged women who do not have proper education and skills are still managing to earn a living for themselves and being more self-dependent. However, the RMG industry needs to get the values and understanding straight that mere participation is not empowerment rather equality and ensuring the fulfillment of all the individual rights is empowerment. Delusion created by the state leaders and factory workers about women empowerment is nothing but a veil through which the discrimination women are facing is being hidden.


Biography of the Writer

Farhat Zaman
Research Enthusiast
Former Research Assistant, Transparency International Bangladesh
Masters Graduate, Department of International Relations, Bangladesh University of Professionals


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5 Replies to “The Delusion of Women Empowerment in the Ready-made Garments Industry of Bangladesh”

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