Two ways Bangladesh can help their workers have a better life | ActionAid UK

ActionAid’s new policy report 'Diversify and Conquer' discusses what Bangladesh’s government needs to do to create decent jobs for the country’s workers so they have better employment alternatives to jobs in garment factories, where they are poorly paid and badly treated. Opening this path to a brighter future requires transforming the economy by investing in manufacturing sectors that bring in more money for the country, like engineering and electronics.

Women learning refrigerator servicing under the Skills Development Project in Bangladesh.
Women learning refrigerator servicing under a Skills Development Project in Bangladesh - an important project run by the Asian Development Bank, to help reduce poverty and unemployment.

ActionAid works with women all over the world to help them demand that they are treated and paid fairly in the workplace. We have set up Rights Cafes next to many factories, which provide a safe space for women workers to go and to learn about their legal rights under the country’s labour laws. Trainers, like Shameeema (pictured below - standing on the left), help women learn how to negotiate confidently with their (mostly male) supervisors and managers, and how to calculate their working hours and overtime, wages, annual leave and maternity leave so that they can avoid being cheated out of their entitlements.

Factory Rights Cafe

ActionAid continues to support women workers and work with them to campaign for a living wage, but we also acknowledge low wages and poor working conditions are part of a structural problem, influenced by international rules and regulations.

Better job alternatives

Our new report 'Diversify and Conquer' focuses on Bangladesh, where the garment industry employs over 3.5 million people – mostly women – on very low wages and in poor conditions.

We call on the country’s leaders to give workers better job alternatives by:

  1. recognising the limitations of the garment industry and
  2. targeting investments towards higher-value added manufacturing industries.

Why the garment industry leads to a dead end

The clothing industry has long been the focus of high-profile campaigns and media exposés of poor conditions and low wages. These include ActionAid’s 2011 campaign for Asda to ensure that living wages are paid and working conditions improved in their supply chains.

When the garment industry boomed in the 1980s, it was seen as Bangladesh’s chance of building an industry that could make the country competitive in a global market, in line with neoliberal policies promoting openness and free trade for growth.

Garment factory, Bangladesh

But the garment industry is shaped by developed countries, where Bangladesh and others in the developing world can only compete on the basis of cheap labour, and add very little to a product’s final value. This limits developing countries’ opportunities to innovate or pay better wages and means they get stuck at the bottom of ladder.

Moving to higher value added manufacturing

Bangladeshi leaders of the 1980s were right to see the industry sector as key for growth – today’s developed countries took that same path. But the secret lies in championing manufacturing industries where the value added locally is high, through, for example, research and design of new products, or goods made of locally-sourced materials and parts. Two existing industries in Bangladesh, engineering and electronics, have the potential to develop the country's growth to that level; they just need the right government support.

Higher value industries like these can bring more income to businesses and, with the help of tax policies, more income so that the state can provide greater access to public services like education, health or childcare. A good labour policy can ensure that higher income brings better wages for workers, so there can be a positive development cycle for decades to come.

For more information on how this could help Bangladeshi working women, read our new report 'Diversify and Conquer', which calls upon Bangladesh’s leaders to draw a new industrial strategy for the sake of today’s and tomorrow’s workers.