The government and factory owners should spend more to upgrade workers' skills, stop workplace sexual harassment and provide more healthcare facilities to female workers for the garment sector to well and truly thrive, speakers said yesterday.
With the automation of the production system, the female workers are losing their jobs more than their male counterparts as they are less capable in operating modern machinery, said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
He suggested putting education up to the eighth grade as minimum qualification for jobs in garment factories for females along with training.
Moazzem's comments came at a discussion on the situation of the women workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh.
Manusher Jonno Foundation and The Daily Star jointly organised the event at the newspaper's office in Dhaka.
State Minister for Labour and Employment Md Mujibul Haque, union leaders, experts, businessmen and researchers attended the programme.
Female workers cannot work after 40 to 45 years of age as they do not have the capacity to run the machines because of getting lesser amounts of nutrition in their growing years, said Nazma Akter, president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.
“We should create an environment where female workers can continue in their jobs until 60 years of age as they are the real asset of the sector,” she added.
Some factory owners take signatures of workers on a plain white paper at the time of joining, said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies.
As a result, the workers cannot claim their rights after leaving their jobs. Similarly, owners hang pictures of workers claiming violent behaviour by them, he said.
“But, the owners cannot do so until and unless the workers have been proved violent by the court.”
Dedicated worker accommodations, hospitals and educational institutions should be built in the newly constructed industrial zones so that they can be provided more facilities, Ahmmed added.
A safe, decent and women-friendly working environment is very much needed for all the women who work in the garment sector, said Shaheen Anam, executive director of the MJF.
Mandatory gender-sensitive training for all workers is needed as it often seems that many do not know how to behave with colleagues, she said.
“It should be a happy, safe and decent workplace.”
“Buyers insist on compliance but why do they not consider that if they keep on reducing their rates how will the factory owners be able to afford compliance?”
Automation is posing a big threat for women employment, Anam said, adding that the government should have a plan in this connection.
“If the workers are productive, everybody will gain -- and of course, the country's economy,” she added.
More than half of the female workers said that they will not get the maternity leave when it is needed, said Rina Roy, director of the MJF, while presenting the keynote paper.
In Dhaka and Gazipur, 41 percent of the female workers said they are aware about the maternity leave, Roy said in the keynote paper. In Narayanganj and Chittagong regions it is 44 percent of the female workers.
If the owners do not agree, the rights of the workers cannot be protected only with law, said Shamsuzzaman Bhuiyan, inspector general of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments.
Raising awareness among the owners and the mid-level management is a must to ensure workers' rights, he added.
At the start of garment business, the owners did not feel the need to give appointment letters and ID cards, said Arafat Ahmed, director of Arrival Fashion. “But now the situation has changed.”
The owners now have to give the appointment letter and ID cards for maintaining the compliance of the international retailers, he said.
The female workers would be dropped off for automation if they are not trained to make them more skilled, said Asgar Sabri, director at ActionAid.
Some 44 percent of the women are working and raising their children in their workplace in the absence of daycare centres in factories, he added.
Sarwat Binte Islam, senior programme manager at the MJF, said they give training for two months to 30 female workers hailing from the vulnerable segment of the society.
The appointment letters and ID cards should be given to all workers because it is a right of the workers, said Laila Jasmin Banu, a representative of the EU delegation.
She said training for mid-level management is very important to protect the rights of the workers.
“There is no alternative to training for female workers if we want to keep them empowered in the era of automation in factories as different recent studies found it,” Banu said.
State Minister Haque said the maternity leave will be made as on-duty leave so that the female workers get the salaries and benefit.
Thousands of workers lost their jobs due to inspection by the Accord and the Alliance. Sometimes, non-compliant factories delay payment to workers due to cancellation of work orders.
Before the Rana Plaza building collapse there were only 120 registered unions; now, the number is 700 only in the garment sector while the total number of unions across the country is 8,500.
“We amended the labour law according to whatever the ILO wanted from us,” Haque said.
One dormitory has been inaugurated at Bandar for 700 female workers and another housing 1,000 would be constructed at Kalurghat area in Chittagong.
A specialised hospital would be constructed only for workers in Narayanganj, the state minister added.
Ruchira Tabassum, senior specialist at the ICDDR, B, said the mid-level managers also remain under tremendous pressure for on-time delivery.
Some 63 percent of the factory managers said that they harass the workers either using slang language or physical harassment. Some 74 percent female workers also said that they have noticed such harassment, she said.
Silvia Rovelli, project manager of Terre des hommes, said raising awareness on different issues among the mid-level managers can also resolve the problems.
Female workers become the victims of harassment not only in their workplaces but also on the way to the factories and the areas where they live as they do not have strong voices, said Maheen Sultan, a visiting fellow at the Brac University.
As many as 70 percent of the workers said they have been working in the sector as a temporary solution as they have other plans in their lives, according to Nazneen Shifa, member of the Activist Anthropologist.
Shahedul Anam Khan, associate editor of The Daily Star, moderated the discussion.