Female employment and gender : a case study of female garment workers in Dhaka district, Bangladesh.
Bradfield, Justin G.
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The impact of female employment on societies where women have traditionally been confined to domestic roles is a dynamic characteristic of a changing global labour landscape. The literature and feminist discourse on this subject note that, for women, the impact has been both positive and negative. In Bangladesh these changes are taking place rapidly, and in so doing, challenging the traditional fabric of a society which until comparatively recently was characterised as culturally and religiously conservative, predominantly rural and deeply paternalistic. This study aimed to contribute to an evolving perspective of this rapidly changing dynamic and what it means for women living and working in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, a mega-city of over 16 million people. The study sought to gain a better understanding of the impact of wage employment on working women by engaging with female garment workers in two communities, Mohammadpur and Savar, in Dhaka District. Its three main objectives were to: 1) Identify more generally, the positive and negative impacts of employment in the ready-made garment sector on the lives of female garment workers in the research sample, and to provide a context for the more specific objectives outlined as follows; 2) Understand more specifically the consequences of this employment for these women, documenting in particular, changes or shifts in gender relations, and the norms, decision-making ability and status of these women within the household; 3) Understand the impact of waged labour on women’s perceptions of their position/status within their community. In particular the study documents the changing cultural, economic and social impacts on these women, both in their respective communities, and more importantly on their status and bargaining power within the household itself. This is an often underreported area of study. Therefore, it is hoped that the study will provide new insight into how these women are coping with rapid change, and what this means for the future status, equality and welfare of women, albeit within a narrow research window. Since Bangladesh is projected to challenge China as the world’s leading manufacturer of ready-made garments within the next couple of decades, the implications for women and traditional values and attitudes toward working women in Bangladesh are important. The research consisted of four phases: identification of suitable candidates for the research study, the subsequent development of the questionnaire and methodology for approaching the participant interviews, a qualitative interview phase with participants from two separate factories (located in two separate districts of Dhaka), and finally a process of triangulation of the data to ensure credibility and accuracy. This was particularly important, since the interviews were translated from Bangla to English and conducted remotely via an experienced research assistant. Through the employment of a constructivist paradigm, the researcher was able to source rich data that was used to test existing theories on the impact of the garment industry in Bangladesh on women. The study found that employment in this sector had largely been beneficial for the participants, resulting in tangible improvements in their quality of life including improvements in the overall ability of the household to save, and to enjoy a better diet including meat and fish. These material improvements often translated into an ability to renegotiate decision making and power relations within the household. However, this should be contextualised within a sobering reality, which is that many women have little choice but to work long hours, for minimal pay, in often dangerous working conditions and without the prospect of the formalisation of their labour or attendant welfare benefits. Therefore, this study argues that while the ready-made garment sector has indeed enhanced the socio-economic status of women, which is empowering, these gains remain fragile, and easily reversible as political and economic conditions within the country, and indeed the forces of globalization, have the ability to unseat these small but positive implications. Hard won freedoms therefore come at a tremendous cost for female garment workers in Bangladesh.