Bringing factories to rural poor
The story of female rug weavers in Rangpurby Marie Sophie Pettersson
EXTREME poor women and adolescent girls face severe obstacles to generating their own incomes and becoming financially independent. Prevalent gender norms often make them dependent on male breadwinners and deny them access to education, skills development, formal labour market entry and entrepreneurship. In rural Bangladesh, employment and livelihood options are scarce; so, many migrate to Dhaka for work. The readymade garment industry in Dhaka’s industrial zone currently employs millions of workers, approximately 80 per cent of whom are women and adolescent girls working as sewing operators at the bottom of the supply chain, many under hazardous conditions but with a chance to provide for their families.
The hardship of low-skilled work and conflict with family life tends to make the garments industry unsustainable for women over the long run. Simple measures such as nursery facilities at the workplace and a proper maternity leave are first steps at making the sector more female-friendly. Yet for women and girls leaving their families behind in their rural villages, a better solution would be to move the factory to the rural setting. Rural-based work opportunities enable these women to keep a work-life balance by being able to still live with their families and carry out their normal household and childcare duties outside their working hours.
Given that we have over 20 million extremely poor people living in rural regions, eager for work, why is it that more factories have not relocated outside of the urban industrial zones? What sort of incentives might the government provide in order to encourage this necessary shift?
Shiree’s partner NGO CARE has initiated a successful pro-poor rural-based private sector engagement, with the intention to expand income and employment opportunities of women in extreme poor households in the rural communities. Care established a collaboration with the private company CHP-BD (Classical Handmade Products – BD) which provided training to 200 female beneficiaries in mat/rug making and employed them all at eight different small factories in different rural locations in the SETU working communities nearby the beneficiary villages. The initial factory establishment cost was low with main budgeting for Tk 15,000 per weaving machine, land and garment waste raw material. Thus, an easily replicable, low-cost, environmentally-friendly, scalable project.
Observing the great success of this initiative the project was scaled up in Hajiganj village in Nilphamari upazila headquarters, where 220 women from the surrounding communities are now working in one big rug factory.
These women receive higher wages than they would as garments workers in Dhaka — after their initial training period these women earn a decent salary of Tk 160 per day (Tk 4,160 per month) which over time will increase up to Tk 7,000 taka per month for working 8:00am to 5:00pm, six days a week. They work under safer work conditions with compliance and safety which many garments factories in Dhaka lack — nursery, health clinic, female-friendly toilet facilities, dining hall and fans. The permanence of the rug factory work is especially crucial, as these female workers do not face the need to migrate between factories seeking higher wages or better conditions, or completely leave the factory work to return to the village, like most female garments workers in Dhaka do.
I visited all these rug factories in Rangpur and spoke to different groups of strong women working there. All these female workers said that both they and their husbands are happy now they are working and contributing to their family income. They feel more confident after receiving skill training and said their female leaders and female supervisors are supporting them in the factories. They said they had already used some of their earnings to invest in purchasing livestock, household repairs, new clothes, mobile phone, etc. They reported that the relations with their husbands had improved and wife beating reduced. They all said they are happier working than as housewives as before, even though this means less time with their children and creates a double burden of work and household duties. To support each other during the commute to work they usually travel in groups either by bicycle or CNG helps.
Overall, the idea of bringing the factory to the poor communities, rather than bringing the poor to the factories in the city, splitting up families and putting women at high risk, seems a positive one. More initiatives like that of Care’s need to be set up all over the country by private investors as a way to promote sustainable gender-sensitive livelihoods for extreme poor women and adolescent girls for their financial stability and economic empowerment. Notably, employment opportunities and skill training are crucial to keeping adolescent girls from child marriage and providing married women with skills and income sources to fall back on should they face divorce, separation or the death of their husband, which all too often force women who were previously dependent into destitution.
Marie Sophie Pettersson is extreme poverty analyst at shiree/EEP, email@example.com.
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