'Previously, female workers were mostly engaged in works such as marking, levelling and spin cutting'
The presence of female workers in the garment industry dwindled to 58.3 per cent this year, a far cry from previous unsubstantiated claims of 70-80 per cent of the past.
The actual figure was derived from a survey taken by Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB), which revealed the statistics as of December 13.
MiB is a 4-year research initiative started in 2018 by the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development of Brac University, to map the export-oriented RMG industry across the country digitally.
Laudes Foundation and the Netherlands fund it, while BGMEA and BKMEA are strategic partners.
As per the survey findings, there 3,223 export-oriented apparel factories engaged in the apparel making process.
In these factories, over 2.56 million people are employed, of which 1.49 million, or approximately 58.3 per cent are female.
Of the total factories, 1,171 are located in Dhaka, 1,053 in Gazipur, 614 in Narayanganj and 386 in Chittagong. Among the export-oriented factories, 1,886 are the members of BGMEA and 512 of the BKMEA. On the other hand, 252 factories belong to both BGMEA and BKMEA.
Besides, 574 factories do not belong to either the BGMEA or the BKMEA. These factories subcontract the work orders to others.
“To change the narrative about the RMG sector, it needs credible data on the number of factories, their locations, number of workers, and more,” Syed Hasibuddin Hussain, project manager of MiB, told Dhaka Tribune.
The map is publicly accessible to catalyse transparency and bring about meaningful industry improvements in Bangladesh, and thus strengthen the sector as a whole, he adds.
However, BGMEA claimed that the female ratio is much higher than the MiB survey.
A comparative review of the recent studies on RMG industry, particularly on the gender distribution of the workforce, reveals the similar picture of male-female ratio as drawn by MIB, said BGMEA President Rubana Huq.
While the finding of the MiB suggests the ratio of male and female to be 41.7 and 58.3 per cent respectively, another recent survey report by the Asian Centre for Development (ACD) found it to be 40.8 and 59.2 per cent, the business leader said.
"Therefore, on average, the male-female ratio of 40 and 60 per cent can be generalised across the industry as per our understanding," she added.
A survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue in 2018 said that out of 3,596 active garment factories in Bangladesh with 3.5 million workers, 60.8 per cent were female and 39.2 per cent were male.
In its previous survey in 2015, the workers were 36 per cent male and 64 per cent female.
“Previously, female workers were mostly engaged in works such as marking, levelling and spin cutting. But modernisation or technology adoption has displaced most of these workers,” said NazmaAkter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.
On the other hand, the female workers did not get the proper training to make them adequately skilled to run the updated machinery or to cope up with the changing pattern of work with the latest technology. As a result, they lagged and dropped out, Akter said.
If women's participation in work, especially in the apparel sector, drops, it will hinder the empowerment and increase the disparity between men and women.
Without any delay, the government and sector people should take policy measures including skill training in retaining women participation, Akter added.
Though the ratio may be less than prevailing perception, there has been no evidence of a declining number of female workers in this industry, Huq said.
The decline in the percentage of women working in the RMG sector does not mean that they left. It can also mean more males joining the workforce, said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at the CPD.
From a gender and empowerment point of view, the sector is considered a female-oriented sector. Gradually skill upgradation is occurring in the apparel sector. Skill requirement has increased in production as there is more variation in products but on a limited scale.
So for getting jobs or a top position, skill is an issue.
Men are more aware or skilled in machines than women. But the female workers do not have this type of skill due to lack of training, said the economist.
As a result, it has been difficult for women at the entry level. To address these issues, outside training is very crucial and the government should focus on these issues, he added.