Out of the shadows: Women and wage struggle in the RMG industry of Bangladesh


Soma Dey


Associate Professor

University of Dhaka

Dr. Soma Dey is an Associate Professor of Women & Gender Studies, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh


Key Takeaways

    How To Apply Insights

    • The outcomes of labour protests portrayed in this study will be helpful to the trade union leaders and human rights advocates to envision strategies for ensuring women’s effective participation in labour rights activism.
    • The stated narratives justify RMG workers’ need for a living wage, timely payment, and modification of rapid hiring and firing policies. These are significant to reform the labour laws and industrial policies in Bangladesh.
    • The study also highlights the power divisions between giant buyers and local manufacturers. The demand for quick shipment and the cheap rates offered by the buyers indeed enhance the rates of labour exploitation by the local manufacturers. In conclusion, the study accentuates the need for intergovernmental negotiations and the move of international organisations (e.g. WTO) to reform the global trade rules. All these steps will be helpful to mitigate labour unrest and promote the sustainability of the global apparel and textile industry.

    Why This Research Matters

    The principal purpose of this research is to showcase the achievements and drawbacks of the wage struggles of women RMG (ready-made garments) workers in Bangladesh.

    Findings & Research Conclusions

    This study shows how the so-called ‘timid’ factory workers express their choices and strengths in wage negotiation, how much change they have brought about, and what are their constraints for gaining more desirable outcomes.

    Findings of this research convey that the workers have strongly been claiming a fair wage from the beginning of this industry. Over the decades, they have strengthened their leadership capacities by participating in ‘informal’ trade unions and extending networks among national and international labour rights advocates. Their continuous protests against factory owners have triggered the Government wage board to set a minimum wage rate for different grades of workers.

    Simultaneously, while demanding a fair wage, women have represented themselves as ‘peaceful’ protesters having primary concern about their ‘family’ survival. Therefore, a culture of inaction prevails, contributing to the workers’ inertia to collectively fight against the powerful actors. As a result, the workers fail to achieve broader labour rights, and the global RMG industry benefits by exploiting cheap labour and suppressing workers’ voice and unionised actions.

    The insights drawn from this study may assist in ensuring justice for the workers in the RMG sector, raising their productivity and quality of life.

    Research's methodology

    Preliminary ideas for this research emerged from the personal interest that developed over the years, observing several protests of the RMG workers. For gaining an in-depth understanding of their problems, the research was designed following qualitative methodology.

    We collected primary data through 20 in-depth interviews with the RMG workers employed in the industry during the field survey. Twelve women workers (six from large compliant and six from small non-compliant factories) were interviewed following the snowball sampling method. In addition, eight Key informant interviews (KII) were conducted.

    For relevant secondary data, newspaper reports were reviewed through searching the online archives of three national daily newspapers: The Daily Star (published in English), Prothom Alo (published in Bangla), and The Dhaka Tribune (published in English). In addition, we reviewed scholarly articles, books, and reports on the garment manufacturing industry of Bangladesh.


    It is small-scale exploratory research. The findings mirror the perspectives of a few workers and limited stakeholders. Further research is required to investigate the complex labour rights issue in the RMG industry, including the actors (e.g., global buyers) who operate behind the scene.

    AgencyAccording to the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, human agency is the ability to set and pursue one’s own goals and interests. It is the key to social change.
    PowerAccording to Michel Foucault, power is circular and in constant flux, allowing it to be exercised through bottom-up practices. Thus, power can be conceptualised as not something emanating just from the top but as something that proliferates continuously, which provides scope and possibility for action and resistance of those assumed to be powerless.

    Reference this research

    Dey, S., & Basak, P. (2017). Out of the shadows: Women and wage struggle in the RMG industry of Bangladesh. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 23(2), 163-182.

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