The steady decline in the rate of female employment in the export-oriented ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh has already raised concern among the informed quarters.
The industry - as one of the leading contributors to the country's GDP growth - is also the job provider to the largest number of women in terms of single-industry employment.
Although women still comprise 80% of its four million-strong labour force, according to the data from Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), their employment opportunities as factory workers have been consistently shrinking in recent years.
The situation calls for an investigation into the factors causing this declining trend in women employment, particularly to find whether women are going for better or worse job options.
In 2018, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) found that the proportion of female workers in the RMG sector in Bangladesh decreased from 58.4% in 2012 to 53.2% in 2016, making way for a proportionate rise in men workers.
The decrease in participation of women workers in the RMG industry may be indicative of a reality lacking conducive working conditions and environment for women.
A disproportionately male-dominated senior management remains a long-standing issue of gender discrimination for the sector. Insufficient managerial and other required skills are the often-cited reasons for the existing discrimination.
A recent International Labour Organisation survey states that 95% of the line supervisor jobs in the RMG factories in Bangladesh are occupied by men. The absence of representation of female workers in mid-management positions is attributable to the lack of sufficient skills.
To improve the gender balance in the senior management through robust recruitment, measures must be put in place to up-skill women and at the same time, promote safe, healthy and conducive working conditions.
In a compulsively male-dominated world, women, particularly wage earners, are the inevitable myriad-taskers. They mind their job at their workplace, while on the home front, bear and rear children and manage and mind a multitude of chores in the house.
The heavily gender-discriminated industry structure simply adds to the challenges women tackle while disposing of the herculean burden of their duties every day. Misogynistic jibes "women cannot strive in management roles", "women are less apt to cerebral roles" and the like hang heavily on the air of the medium and large scale industries with the RMG being no exception, barring women employees often to move upward beyond machine operator position.
There has been little effort in the country to change the status quo in the medium and large scale industries despite a large body of evidence and numerous instances confirm that adequately trained women can perform remarkably in mid-management positions.
Women working in management positions itself strengthens the gender profile of a company, attracting other skilled women to join and improve the gender balance in its environment. Having women in management, particularly in mid-management positions, also helps a company deal with gender-related issues far more wisely than they could do otherwise.
BRAC for some time has been working with women in the RMG industry to equip them with soft and hard skills required for the mid-management positions through extensive training programmes as well as with the industry owners to facilitate a favourable working environment for women to thrive in.
BRAC recognises that to effectively re-skill the industry with the impending fourth industrial revolution, focus must be on both the technical, i.e., hard skills and functional, i.e., soft skills for the women workers who hold the majority of the industry workforce.
Till now, it has provided training to 3,532 workers in industry machinery operation and 800,000 workers of 415 factories in developing safety management systems (SMS) and safety conditions. It has also provided safeguarding training to 32,000 workers relating to exploitation, abuse, harassment and gender-based violence at workplaces.
Robust conversations among the industry stakeholders are a prerequisite to creating an enabling environment for women garment workers to move forward.
Going beyond the skill enhancements, the aim should be to create a critical mass of women in the mid-level positions in this industry, while also ensuring the necessary conditions in which they can retain their positions and thrive in the long term.
Policy level interventions and incentives along with dynamic initiatives from other stakeholders are also critical. Innovations, both technological and non-technological, are essential at every stage of finding solutions.
The RMG industry and women of Bangladesh are historically interdependent. Rural women of this country made their first foray into the formal sector through this industry, while the industry made all its success building on their hard labour.
As the industry now prepares to embrace the fourth industrial revolution, it will essentially have to equip its female workforce with capacities to adapt themselves to the new roles, requiring advanced skills and 'cerebral' abilities.
Apart from its vast impact on the national economy, the RMG industry's social impact has been phenomenal for Bangladesh. It brought millions of rural women outside the home, helped them earn their living, become breadwinners of the family and form a part of the growing urban demographic.
The money they earned has favoured the shaping up of many small trades targeting the RMG workers as their main customers. With this background, neither the RMG industry nor the nation can afford to move forward into the new industrial era, abandoning thousands of its women workers.
Although deeply scourged by the pandemic, Bangladesh continues preparations for graduating to the middle-income status, which essentially requires fulfilment of its commitment towards women empowerment to a certain degree. By reinventing itself in women employment, the RMG industry will effectively add power and pace to the nation's progression towards achieving that goal.
SK Jenefa Jabbar has 23 years of experience in working in the RMG industry with renowned organisations such as JCPenny, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), TESCO, Gap Inc to name a few. She leads BRAC's overall RMG portfolio and the social compliance team's efforts in building the capacity of women workers in RMG factories.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.