Difference is certainly conspicuous when you compare the present state of Bangladesh with that of in 1971 when the country was born with a promise of prosperity for her citizens. Since her independence, Bangladesh has come a long way and is now a lower-middle income country with an expanding economy where poverty rate has been dropping while life expectancy, literacy, and per capita food intake are on the rise.
Bangladesh has been praised in the world as a model of development through its socio-economic progress and achievement of MDGs.
The ready-made garment (RMG) industry has significant contribution to the socio-economic development of Bangladesh through generating employment, empowering women, reducing poverty, and achieving the targeted GDP growth. The sector accounts for around 81% of the total export earnings of Bangladesh and contributes to around 13% of the country’s GDP.
An-almost-three decade success story
The emergence of apparel industry in Bangladesh, in the early 1980s, appeared as a ray of light for the country struggling to recover from a devastation caused by the nine-month long Liberation War. Before independence, no major industries were developed in erstwhile East Pakistan as major share of development budget went to West Pakistan due to discriminatory policy and rule by the then Pakistani government.
External markets for the major export item, jute, had started losing due to the instability of supply and the increasing popularity of synthetic substitutes. Despite having a large workforce, workers were largely illiterate, unskilled, and underemployed.
The RMG industry came as a good solution to the problem as this labour-intensive sector started generating employment for a large number of people and, on the other hand, fetching foreign currency for the country through garment exports. Beginning the venture with exports worth only $12,000, the apparel sector is now the flagship industry of Bangladesh with export earnings of around $29 billion.
The RMG industry has created direct employment for around 4.4 million people; of them 70% are women. Besides, the expansion of the RMG industry has led to the development of other sectors, including backward linkage industries, creating jobs for a huge number of people.
The RMG industry has been playing a significant role in poverty reduction in Bangladesh, because most of the people working in the garment sector are from poor rural areas. With their employment in the apparel sector, they have been able to come out of poverty and give their family members access to better life.
It’s all about the women
A formal job and income are essential ingredients of women’s empowerment, and the RMG industry has provided that to around 3 million women, mostly from poor families. Majority of the female RMG workers, who mainly come from rural areas, have little or no education at all.
Creating job opportunity for this huge number of women in other sectors would generally require skills and education, and that would have been difficult. Now they are no longer treated as a burden on their families, rather have earned dignity and freedom to take decisions in their families.
Their employment in the RMG sector has not only changed their lives, but also made difference to the lives of their children. Their financial capacity helps them to secure better life for their children, especially girls. Poor parents generally consider education for girls unnecessary and tend to get their daughters married off at an early age. Thus, the industry has contribution to enrolling more young girls in school than ever before.
After the liberation of Bangladesh, the female literacy rate was only 11% which is now around 56%. A study by Rachel Heath of the University of Washington and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak of Yale University’s School of Management, has also found the garment industry’s contribution to female education. According to the study, 27% more young girls were going to school than before the emergence of garment industry in Bangladesh.
Moreover, women engagement in the RMG industry has led to a drop in child marriage rate because these working women feel discouraged to get married at an early age. This contributes to lowering child and maternal mortality rates. According to World Bank data, the infant mortality rate decreased from 92 in 1991 to 29 per 1,000 live births in 2015; while maternal mortality rate came down to 170 in 2013 from 472 per 100,000 live births in 1991. It is observed that between this period the apparel industry grew considerably creating job opportunity for more women in the country.
Since the apparel industry has been acting as a catalyst for socio-economic development in Bangladesh, we need to pay more attention to this sector to unlock its untapped potentials. More development of the RMG industry means more people getting jobs -- more women being empowered, more children going school, more foreign currency -- which will ultimately bring more prosperity for the country.
Faruque Hassan is the managing director of Giant Group and senior vice president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)