The complex at Intramex Garment Factory in Bangladesh houses seven separate factories, a medical facility to serve its workers in need of aid, and a child-care center. Just 17 miles outside the country's capital city of Dhaka, it's a far cry from the common images of backwater sweatshops of the Global South. On the top floor is a small space that serves as a conference room for meetings and a sample room with every type of clothing that the factory makes, from infant onesies to men's slacks. On the same floor is the office of the factory's general manager, a tall, bearded man everyone calls Mr. Amin.
On any given day, you can find Mr. Amin, quiet and with a kind demeanor, walking the production floor. A former major in the Bengali military, he has managed the factory for 12 years and oversees more than 6,000 workers.
In a room above the factory floor hangs a fluorescent yellow sign adorned with drawings of flowers on the door to a full classroom that reads, "Welcome to Advance Training." Mr. Amin explains, "We pay them 5,300 taka ($65.39) a month when they start out here. That's when they know nothing. After training, they get 6,500 ($80.20). Training is three months or six months, depending on how fast you learn."
But what some of the women at the factory are learning when I visit isn't how to use a new machine or proper payroll protocol, but how deeply ingrained gender stereotypes are in most of their minds. The group sorts colored paper cards with gendered words written on them in magic marker; some words are more obviously associated with a certain gender, like "beard" or "breastfeeding," while others are, at least in the west, more versatile, like "cooking" or "supervisor." Women are asked to put the cards into blue (male), pink (female), or yellow (neutral) circled areas on the floor to show what is appropriate for men versus women.
The female workers generally associate being a boss with masculinity and cooking with being female. This is when the teacher shows them a new way of structuring the cards outside of traditional gender norms. The aim is to break down the deeply rooted social mores that determine how women see themselves, both in their families and at work. "Of the 300 floor managers here, only one is a woman. The women here haven't been interested in being managers; they always turn it down," Mr. Amin says. "I want more women to move up, but it seems they are afraid of the responsibility." He's hoping the training program, which is called Promoting Enabling Environment for Workers in Factories (PEEWF) and began a little over a year ago at Intramex, will change that.
"Workers who are informed and educated about their rights do their jobs better; it's better for everyone."
This self-consciously progressive approach to transforming his company is partly an economic strategy but also has moral motivations. "I believe in listening to the workers voices and what they need to do their job well," Mr. Amin says. "Workers who are informed and educated about their rights do their jobs better; it's better for everyone."
It's an industry that could certainly stand to do better. The ready-made garment (RMG) industry has catalyzed economic growth in Bangladesh, transforming the country into an export-orientated powerhouse by creating more than 80 percent of what is sent to other countries. RGM makes up 13 percent of the country's gross domestic product and has created jobs for more than 4 million workers, of which up to 85 percent are poorly educated women who are largely from rural areas, according to CARE, one of the world's largest international humanitarian organizations. The industry grows despite political instability and corruption, and the haunting remnants that linger in the wake of major disasters like the Tazreen fire or Rana Plaza, which collapsed four years ago this week due to poor infrastructure.
The tragedy at Rana in particular, which killed more than 1,000 people, shined an international spotlight on the RMG industry. Fingers were quickly pointed in many directions—from the government, to factory owners, to the mostly Western companies that feed the production. Fashion retailers like Joe Fresh and Benetton that made clothes in the factory that collapsed because of a lack of infrastructure regulations all rushed to show their support for a better, safer Bangladesh.
As a result, more than 200 companies around the world signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between retailers and factories to make them safer and empower workers. (That was direly needed given that the day before Rana Plaza collapsed, multiple workers told management about their concerns that large cracks were opening up in the walls, but were ignored.) The Accord applies to a network of more than 1,600 factories, though critics say it barely covers the landscape—Sarah Labowitz, co-founder of the New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, has done extensive research showing there are closer to 7,000 factories across the country.
So even as the catastrophe at Rana and similar incidents forced a measure of accountability on the industry, there's still a long way to go. The minimum wage in Bangladesh is among the lowest in the world, at 3,000 taka, or $37.50 a month. Protests to increase wages have been silenced by the government, with thousands of workers arrested in recent months. What remains to be seen is a change in the way women in particular are valued on factory room floors. Despite the very public display of leadership that comes with a female prime minister, Bangladesh is a country of severe gender inequality, with high rates of gender-based violence and child marriage, which speaks to a world where women struggle to have a voice or are seen as worthy of or capable of being able to lead inside the industry.
With these problems in mind, CARE, which works on global development efforts around women and children, launched the PEEWF program. It has been implemented in six factories across Bangladesh so far, reaching more than 3,000 women workers since 2015. Abu Taher, who heads up the program, explains, "We've done studies that show that women think they can't be mothers and have their responsibilities in the home and also be leaders at work. The training is helping them see that's not true."
In addition to training in factories, the program has done extensive outreach in communities to help women learn about their rights. "Many of these women don't have confidence to talk about basic things like sick leave or access to clean drinking water," says Tehar. "Or making sure they have separate bathrooms for women, or get paid to work overtime." The program has also inculcated solidarity groups where women can meet in confidence and talk about their concerns while learning what they can actually do about them.
The impact of this work has been encouraging, if less than incredible. In one factory, women requested that management move the comment box that was sitting in the middle of the floor to the women's room, so that they could feel safe making complaints. In others, women used their newly gained knowledge of their rights to ask for sick leave instead of just not showing up when they were too ill to work, making it a win-win for both the managers and the employee.
"In our culture, [women] aren't included in most decision making," says Taher. "We can't change the culture overnight, but this is where we start."
Back in the classroom, the curriculum that challenges those beliefs manifests itself in the lives of its students and not just on the factory floor. One woman said she is taking the lessons home. "Now I see that I don't have to do it all myself, that my husband can help," she says. "Now I have him share in the cooking, too." The rest of the class tries to hide mischievous giggles in unity, masking a little bit of rebellious pride.
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This reporting was made possible through at grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.