Bangladesh has become known as something of a success in advancing gender equality since the 1990s. There have been rapid gains in a number of social and economic domains, yet by most objective standards the current condition and status of women and girls within Bangladeshi society remain low. Rapid progress has come about under conditions of mass poverty and interlocking forms of social disadvantage, political instability and under-development, overlain with persistent ‘classic’ forms of patriarchy. Mass employment of women and girls in the country's flagship export sector – the readymade garments (RMG) sector – has been one of the more visible and prominent changes in women's lives since its late 1970s' introduction.
Whether and the extent to which RMG or garments employment has changed the lives of women workers for the better has been the subject of much debate, and the research and analysis it has generated offers valuable insights into the processes of economic and social empowerment for poor women in low income developing countries. Yet as this paper notes, close observers of social change in Bangladesh have become dissatisfied with the limits of a focus on individual economic empowerment. Paid work may enable some women to negotiate the ‘structures of constraint’ that shape their lives and relationships, but what of the structures of constraint themselves? In the Bangladesh context the experience of mass RMG employment has given rise to questions about whether women have gained greater recognition as citizens with rights and roles as carers in the private and political actors within the public spheres. Revisiting the question of women's empowerment in this context means interrogating whether paid employment has contributed to investments in the education and skills of women and girls, improvements in their public safety and rights to occupy public space. Given labour militancy in the sector and its partial successes in raising the minimum wage, what has the experience of labour politics meant for women's political empowerment?
Drawing mainly on the rich literature available on women's RMG employment, this paper explores the wider and less well-documented effects of such employment on public policy relating to gender equality in these areas. It concludes that the overall direction of change in the industry points plainly to the need for investments in worker productivity, with a host of implications for women's work and gender equality more broadly. Factory owners have to date shown few signs of recognising their interests in supporting better state health, education and public safety for women and girls, or changing management practices to retain and raise productivity of skilled women workers. Yet with downward pressure on wages increasingly effectively resisted by workers at a time of global economic volatility and rising living costs, the tide may now be turning for the RMG workers of Bangladesh. Productivity gains require the state and the industry to treat women workers as full citizens with public policies that promote their skills and safety and respect, and which guarantee the representation of their rights and demands. RMG employment continues to be a source of empowerment for women in Bangladesh, but social and economic change means that that power now depends less on the individual economic effects of paid work on household decision-making than it once did. RMG employment is increasingly a source of power for women because of its more collective effects on women's citizenship and political agency. This matters all the more because of how this group is exposed to the volatilities of the global economy.