The Unionisation of Women Workers in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry, flying the flag for self-determination


“We should be happy with what we get because we are girls” is exactly the kind of mind-set that Aleya Atta is trying to overturn of women workers in Bangladesh’s ready to wear garment (RWG) industry. “We tell the women they should never be treated or paid differently because of their gender, otherwise they will be exploited” she says in Udita (Arise); a new documentary by the Rainbow Collective that follows five years in the lives of women at the grass roots of the garment workers struggle. [1]

Bangladesh’s relationship with global capitalism, which has been characterised by exploitation and industrial homicide in recent years, is an all too familiar discourse. Yet, a gendered dialogue surrounding the industry’s relationship with women who comprise over 80% of the work force is less well nuanced.

Women face poor and dangerous working conditions, and often are subject to violence by male managers; a relationship that replicates the dynamic found within the patriarchal structure of the family and society at large.

But a quiet revolution has been taking place, one led by women for women. “When a woman knows her rights she can demand them” says local labour organisation leader Nazma Akhter. [2] She is among a group of labour rights campaigners who recognise that teaching women their rights is key to the mobilisation of the workforce to challenge the status quo. Many workers have travelled from the countryside in search of work, many of whom lack an education. They do not know what they deserve or should demand. Many just keep their heads down in fear of intimidating factory bosses who are known to beat workers and fire staff.

The Awaj Foundation; set up by Akhter who was once a factory worker herself, is one Union that has developed an innovative method of educating women workers through ‘women’s cafes’. Knowledge is imparted over a cup of tea and a snack in an informal environment where women can talk and take part in the discourse, voice their concerns and be heard. And the word has continued to spread, passing through word of mouth with some women promoted to cell leaders gaining further training to act as peer educators and leaders on the factory floors. Membership of Awaj alone has climbed to more than 75,000, with more and more women demanding better pay and working conditions. The result has been a steadily increasing minimum wage and an empowered workforce. [3] Though progress has been slow, it has been labour groups who have initiated these changes. Some 60% of garment factory unions are now led by women who provide meaningful representation for workers. [4]

The self-determination by these women to stand-up for their rights and make demands is a case where women can clearly be seen as agents of change rather than merely the beneficiaries. The narrative that victimises women in need of saving is an all too common one. Yet, the incorporation of local knowledge and participation by Bangladeshi women is proof for the need of an alternative gender and development paradigm that recognises the efficacy of bottom up processes in the Global South. [5]

The employment of so many women in the RWG industry has been instrumental to the dismantling or the patriarchal structure and norms such as purdah; that seclude women according to the country’s religious and cultural customs. Increased opportunities for economic autonomy and improved livelihoods have been a platform for a generation of successful and independent women to emerge. Girls are marrying later, and are able to move around the city, very much independent.

Yet, employment in the garment industry is no panacea for women’s empowerment unless it is combined with equal rights and respect for women. Pressure from below must be joined from above and be maintained to make these gains by women sustainable in the long run and within the larger context of society as a whole.


[1] UDITA (Arise). Directed by Hannan Majid and Richard York. Films For Action, 2015.

[2] UDITA (Arise). Directed by Hannan Majid and Richard York. Films For Action, 2015. Scholte, Marianne. “An Awkward Truth: Bangladesh Factories a Way Up for Women.” Spiegel International. July 10, 2013. (accessed November 10, 2015)

[3] Saxena, Sanchita. “A Glimmer of Hope: Women Leading Change in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry.” The Asia Foundation. September 24, 2014. (accessed November 10, 2015)

[4] Connell, Tula. “Bangladesh Women Workers Increasingly Empowered.” Solidarity Centre. July 6, 2015. (accessed November 11, 2015)

[5] Beetham, Gwendolyn, and Justina Demetriades. ” Feminist Research Methodologies and Development: Overview and Practical Application.” Gender and Development 15, no. 2 (July 2007): 199-216




About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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