Class Aspirations and Female Workers in the Garment Industry in Bangladesh

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Bangladesh emerged as a critical player in the global apparel industry. Yet discriminatory practices of low wages, anti-trade unionism, and lack of factory upgrades persist, trapping the female workers in this industry in an illusory world of possibilities.

 

When the day breaks

My eyes take in a vision,

Of a tide of garment workers on the streets.

…Have you seen so many women’s faces together?

Have you heard the thunderous sound of a thousand women walking?

This surge is the force behind our economy.

  • Lovely Yesmin, trade union leader and former garment worker

The Rise of Bangladesh’s Garment Industry

In the 1970s, when U.S. wages rose, and neoliberal policies of market deregulation gained global traction, U.S. garment manufacturers began to look for lower production costs in the Asian markets of South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. These countries, which were rapidly expanding their manufacturing base, offered flexible solutions to the specific characteristics of the garment industry, from rapid changes in trends, abundant supply of affordable labor, and increasingly complex supply chains as multiple sites were combined in the manufacturing of textiles and ready-made clothes. However, these countries soon came under the regulation of the Multifibre Arrangement (Phase 1, 1974–94; Phase 2, 1995–2004), which was an agreement between the United States and European countries to regulate textile production.

The MFA restricted the import of manufactured clothing from Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. Instead, the MFA allowed unrestricted access to garments produced in the least developed countries (LDCs) like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam to help build these countries’ economies. To circumvent these restrictions, the South Korean company Daewoo, a major apparel producer, partnered with Desh Company of Bangladesh in 1978.

The Desh–Daewoo collaboration occurred at a crucial juncture in the economic restructuring of global markets in terms of deregulation and labor flexibility. Eager to build capital, the Bangladeshi government provided lucrative incentives for the setting up of private industries. By the 1990s, Korean, Chinese, and Indian factory owners were operating alongside Bangladeshi owners, taking advantage of quota-free status, extremely low wages, no oversight of factories, and the benefits of a non-unionized labor force.

By the early 2000s, Bangladesh had become a significant producer of ready-made garments for the global market. But this rapid growth of the garment industry came at the expense of labor rights that the World Trade Organization (WTO) failed to protect. While the WTO introduced patent rights protections for pharmaceutical companies and agribusinesses, it did not protect workers with a social clause, which would have ensured minimum labor standards, including “prohibition on child labor, forced labor and discrimination, and with union rights as the key measure for addressing all working conditions” (Gunseli Berik, “Revisiting the Feminist Debates on the International Labor Standards in the Aftermath of Rana Plaza,” Studies in Comparative International Development 52, no. 2, 2017, 3).

For garment workers in Bangladesh, the absence of a social clause has been horrific. The ongoing work-related accidents in the industry result from the discriminatory practices of low wages, anti-trade unionism, and lack of factory upgrades. Bangladesh emerged as a key player in the global apparel industry and, by 2010, became the second largest producer of garments after China, surpassing Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia.

Due to the lack of an organized labor movement in the country, workers’ pent-up anger over low wages and poor treatment by management would result in episodic incidents of protests but not into a sustained movement for workers’ rights. However, after the Rana Plaza factory deaths in 2014, there is far more awareness of factory work conditions and workers’ low wages among labor rights organizations, although the changes are slow to come

 

Women Garment Workers and Changing Gender Roles

The women who work in the garment industry are recent rural-to-urban migrants from impoverished rural backgrounds. Unable to feed their children, the families sent their young, unmarried daughters to work in the factories. The women enter the workforce around the average age of fifteen years and are aged out of factory work between thirty-five to forty years of age by management, who consider them to have become less productive. When asked, many of them said, “In the village, we could not eat, now I can feed my children.” They arrived in the city as young teenagers, and many were unmarried. They often married men whom they met in the city and developed a romantic relationship, but these marriages were unstable, and the women were often victims of spousal abuse.

Many husbands often left their wives after the birth of a girl child, making the women into heads of households. The large number of women who, as single heads of households, were working and raising children in the city was a new family dynamic in a conservative Muslim society. It also put enormous pressure on these young women who had to balance factory work and family responsibilities on their own, forcing many of them to send their children to live with their parents in the village.

Inside and outside the factories, women were exposed to a range of toxic chemicals and fumes from the factories. As a result, factory workers suffered from a range of health issues, including chronic upper respiratory problems, weak eyesight from working under strong factory lights, and arthritis in their arms and limbs from standing for long hours on their feet and operating industrial machinery. Women also suffered from many reproductive ailments.

Despite this, the women found hope in their new lives. Asked what the most positive aspect of their new lives was, they unanimously said, “In the village, I could not walk around; now I can walk by myself, and no one can say anything to me.” The women, especially the younger women, had attained a greater sense of autonomy and accomplishment. They were proud to say, “I can earn, this is my money.”

However, whether young or old workers, they were all aware of the low wages and the extraction of their labor by factory owners. Due to the lack of an organized labor movement in the country, workers’ pent-up anger over low wages and poor treatment by management would result in episodic incidents of protests but not into a sustained movement for workers’ rights. However, after the Rana Plaza factory deaths in 2014, there is far more awareness of factory work conditions and workers’ low wages among labor rights organizations, although the changes are slow to come.

 

Class Identity and Aspirations of Upward Mobility

Despite this dystopian life, I found among the workers a hope for a better life that was expressed in various ways. A feature of their new life as industrial workers was their aspirations around upward class mobility. These aspirations were manifested through sentiments expressed as “I am middle-class” and not “I am working-class,” which would signify a more political identity, and “I work in an office,” which is emblematic of a salariat class, versus “I work in a factory.”

It goes without saying that the term middle class is difficult to define because it signifies different meanings to different categories of people. In rural Bangladesh, it refers to families who own modest houses and some land but are cash-poor. The factory women, whose families were landless farmers, called themselves “middle class” because they had graduated from their former socioeconomic status in rural society. As industrial wage labor, they had gone from having no income in rural society to taka 8,000 ($90, 2018 figure) per month at the time of my research. In 2024, the wage increased to $113 per month. This wage increase occurred after violent protests by workers who were brutally attacked by the police, resulting in the deaths of several workers.

To the garment factory workers, belonging to the middle class signaled the exit from their poverty-stricken rural backgrounds. Similarly, taking the label of middle class set them apart from the poorer people they encountered in the city. As garment workers, they were not like the women who worked as day laborers, cleaners, maids, and cooks in the city. As factory workers, they had acquired new skills. They worked in brick-and-mortar buildings and operated complex machines that endowed them with a sense of pride and achievement when compared to their poorer rural and urban counterparts. The combination of these factors gave them a sense of a new world of opportunities and their entrance into middle-class status.

For the young workers, a middle-class identity was also facilitated through the fragmentation in their work life. Factories readily fired workers if they failed to show up for work due to illness or a sick child. The younger women also left factories when they found a new job at another factory at a slightly higher pay. These lateral moves made the younger women feel that they were learning new skills (moving from stitching zippers to ironing, for example) and advancing in their work lives.

While the younger workers had entered the new industrial middle class in the making, the older workers had a more complex relationship with class. These older women did not have a substantial arc of change in their class identity. Unlike the younger women, the older women saw themselves as part of the lower classes, where scarcity and poverty dictated their life outcomes. Part of this was due to the meager wages ($12 a month) when they entered factory work in the early1990s, which barely supported them. Many of the older workers said that if they lost their factory jobs, they would first look for work in another factory. If they failed to find one, they would work as a domestic worker.

For these women, class sentiments were also expressed through a desire for their children’s education, and they saw education as a pathway to class mobility. They wanted to educate children beyond high school so their sons and daughters could achieve middle-class status as teachers, nurses, technicians, managers, and IT specialists. With neoliberal development, the number of private universities and technical schools has grown exponentially in Bangladesh, leading to a democratization of education that has enabled children of the working class to attend college.

However, and despite women’s investment in their children’s education, very few educated adult children of these workers were able to climb the economic ladder. Some of the older women recognized that education was not the only key to upward mobility (one also needed social contacts that they lacked and money to bribe officials), but they still believed that education gave their children more options. As a result, garment women would incur heavy debt to finance their children’s college education. Most often, they could not pay off the loans, and their children had to leave school and join the informal labor market at very low wages.

 

The Illusion of Neoliberal Aspirations

Formed within consumer capitalism, the Bangladeshi woman, as a new subject of capitalism, is desirous of a better life. There are minor changes in her life — wages, living in a small brick room in the squalid slums of Dhaka with piped water and gas for cooking, a quasi-independent life, freedom of movement, the ability to purchase a new set of clothes every few months, small outings on her day off, and watching television serials about lifestyles of middle-class women living in upscale high-rise apartments with fancy clothes, rich food, expensive cars, and shiny objects. These shimmering lives beckon pleasure and excitement.

Viewing these images makes her believe that this world is arriving at her doorstep, if not for her, then for her children. But the modern subject is also critical of the limits of her possibilities. She knows that all this may not happen, but she has sacrificed her young life at the altar of fast fashion to make a better life for her parents, her siblings, and her children. In the words of a recent garment worker who had returned to Dhaka after working at a factory in Jordan, where the wages were three times what she earned in Bangladesh,

“I had expected to be happy, live in a clean house, eat well, have nice clothes, and go to the zoo, shops, and cinema halls. I have seen pictures of these foreign countries. Their roads are clean, their houses gleam, there is electricity, everything looks new and shiny. In Dhaka, I lived in a small room that I shared with several garment workers. Our living quarters were dingy, drab, and dark. Once in Jordan, we lived inside the factory compound. We could not go out. We were paid more, but most of our wages were deducted for room and board. I did not get any of these things I had seen on TV and had hoped for in my new life.”

Then she stopped and thought for a while. “Yes, I was able to send money home to my parents so they could build a new roof, pay for my younger brother’s and sister’s education, and set some money aside for my marriage. They got something by my working overseas, but I did not get anything. That world, if it exists, is not meant for women like me.” For these workers, neoliberal class aspirations have trapped them in an illusory world of possibilities.

Note:

This essay is based on my research on garment factory workers in Bangladesh and excerpts from my book Castoffs of Capital: Work and Love Among Garment Workers in Bangladesh (2022).

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