”Here is to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” ~ Unknown
Vidiya Amrit Khan completed her LLB honors (Bachelors of Law) from King’s College London, University of London LLB and Postgraduates in Professional Legal Skills from Inns of Court School Law. She is current the on the Board of Advisor for the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the Treasurer of Switzerland Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Director of Desh Group of Companies and Desh Garments Limited. She served as the Director of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Export Associations (BGMEA).
he Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry employs 4.5 million women, making up for nearly 90% of the workforce of the sector. Without their skills and aptitude for work hard, it would be fair to say that the RMG sector would possibly not be where it is today. After all, although deemed physically weaker than men, women are far more patient, resilient and adaptable to varying environments, though often labeled otherwise.
The Late M. Noorul Quader, the pioneer of the 100% RMG industry, saw the strength in these women. He noticed how the women from the villages, were sewing away and making the ‘kathas’, making clothes for their children, husbands and fathers, complete their domestic requirements and out in the fields. He felt that the women of Bengal were no less than our men. He felt as though it was his duty to empower them. Hence, Quader, amongst some controversy and some curiosity, choose to empower the women of Bangladesh.
In 1978, Quader sent a 130 people to Daewoo’s state-of-the-art technology in Pusan, South Korea to be trained in the technical and marketing expertise for garments manufacturing and exporting. This was the very first time that women (18 out of the 130) were sent abroad to receive any industrial training of its sort. And so began the brave journey of these silent women who woke up at dawn, set their homes straight and left for work, some with the support of their families and some without.
Unfortunately, in all these years, this majority of women representation is mostly limited to the factory workers, and not so much reflected in the mid management or top management level. Not in the way that we would have wanted it to be after 37 long years of very intensive labor.
Today, women in Bangladesh have reached heights that are often not even existent in the first world. Our Honorable Prime Minister is a woman, the Leader of the Opposition is a woman, as is the Speaker of the House followed by Ministers, Members of Parliament, Country Managers of leading MNCs are women, there are judges who are women and so many successful, enlightening entrepreneurs who are all highly educated and efficient women. They have all set standards of leadership for us.
Yet, relatively speaking, there are not many women who are leading the RMG industry or holding positions as we go up the work place rankings or even positions in trade body associations, labor unions and the like. To achieve this, the women who are working to make a name for themselves in the business community need to raise their voices and be heard. The few of us should no longer be used to create an impression of gender equality or that society is giving the female workers equal right. Because at the end of the day, how many women are their in the RMG factories who are line supervisors, department heads or factory managers? When what we have done today is only make a valuable contribution to the forward movement of our economy. Not to mention, the younger generation of women who are entering the corporate world today are extremely bright and it is high time they get the right recognition also.
The Rana Plaza incident in 2013 served as a wakeup call for all the entrepreneurs as the whole world’s focus shifted towards us. We have recovered from that phase and now we are doing well once again. We must now focus our attention towards the betterment of our exports so we can continue to do better than our neighbors, like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar and even China, when it comes to environmental compliance and workers’ safety.
My father set up a garment factory with Koreans in 1978. He made a platform; unfortunately didn’t live long enough to lead the revolution that is happening. He not only imported the know-how of industrial scale garment manufacturing but also formulated the instrument of the Back-to-Back Letter of Credit and bonded warehousing system at the factory level. There were training facilities, childcare systems, workers benefits in his factory at that time, which was beyond the imagination for many. Since then, although there has been a lot of progress on the one hand, the majority haven’t really been able to move away from the high volume, low value added product line. We need to grow much further and catch on much quicker. Ask the right questions. Why is China more efficient and productive than us? How is India adding value to its products? Why haven’t designing sections become common fold in the majority of factories by now? We need to analyze the whole paradigm. We will have to aim much higher and go up the value chain so that we can free ourselves from this vicious circle whereby we leave ourselves with very little bargaining power in front of our buyers. This entire step will allow us to have more skilled operators who are better trained and required to apply their intelligence further, as opposed to sitting behind a sewing machine.
When various training seminars take place and skill development sessions are held, we must be more specific in selecting women for the more challenging methods or technical trainings. Side by side with operational skills, we must also educate them and teach them skills, which are otherwise biased towards the men. Why are we not training more and more women to become mid management level executives or work and time study officers or quality assurance managers? At the end of the day, it’s the same amount of physical endurance that is needed to work in a factory for 10 hours.
During a seminar organized at Harvard University, I was invited by the organizers to be on a panel to speak about gender equality and female workers’ rights. They invited me, as I was a female entrepreneur who was in charge of running our family business. I decided to do that when I was 28 years of age and still continue to follow my dream. At the same time, I was then also an elected Director of the BGMEA. Nazma Akter, a very well known trade union leader from Bangladesh, was present at the seminar as well. We were representing female workers and their concerns relating to issues like lactating mothers, women’s sanitation, work place abuse, and having a male union leader representing them at the work place. Unfortunately, these millions of women were only to be sandwiched between a male labor union leader, a male factory manager, a male line supervisor and a male owner, in what is a predominantly male dominated society.
After all this time, and all our sincerity and hard work, did we not deserve positions right at the top? Why was it acceptable to have a women working for 10 hours behind a sewing machine but not a woman taking the lead to manage the lines in a factory?
The current BGMEA Board of Directors was formed based on a selection process and ironically, not a single woman was ‘selected’ to grace the position of a Director to represent the women in the industry. Even in the parliament, our Honorable Prime Minister has reserved seats for women. A sector that employs more than 4 million female workers doesn’t have a single woman in the apex body that decides the fate of their lives, their benefits and the policies that would give them the platform to become real empowered women in society. After all, these are the same women who are often the single income earners in their families. We need female representatives, who understand the need of female workers, to bring forth the issues of health and safety.
Therefore, I have one humble request to all concerned parties. When you talk about women’s participation, training, women workers rights and gender equality, let it not be to tick a few boxes of keeping our conscience clear. The discussion should focus empowering the workingwomen of today so that they can, in turn, build a society, which will then, welcome and respect their daughters and those very strong women thereafter.