Of ‘nimble fingers’ and ‘jacquard’s soldiers’: Up-scaling, Up-skilling, and the Re-masculinization of Labor in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry

­­­­By Christian Strümpell and Hasan Ashraf

Bangladesh is widely known as having rapidly grown into one of the world’s major producers of ready-made garments. In 1978, it counted 9 factories; in 1985, their number stood at 598 (with 200,000 workers and 131.48 million USD turnover); and in 1996 at 2,353 (with 1.29 million workers and 2.55 billion USD turnover). Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, in late 2019, the industry’s export turnover reached 33.07 billion USD, with more than 4,500 factories and 4.2 million workers.[1] Equally well known are the dramatically poor working conditions of garment workers in small, crowded and dangerous factories, and that these super-exploited workers are primarily young women. In this article, we highlight a recent tendency for concentration of production in large factories, the technological upgrading of the production process, and the ‘re-masculinizing’ of garment labor. We enquire into the reasons for these changes and their gender dimension, and we speculate about their political repercussions.

The ready-made garment industry comes to Bangladesh

The first ready-made garment factories producing for export were joint ventures established in 1978 by companies from newly industrializing East Asian countries. These included Hong Kong and South Korea, with a few garment producers in Bangladesh that had so far produced for a local market.[2] These joint ventures were primarily intended to skirt the quotas restricting the amounts of garments East Asian producers could export to North America and the European Union under the so-called Multi-Fibre Agreement that the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GAAT) had introduced in 1974.[3] Bangladesh offered itself as a favorable site for relocating production, because wages here were, at the time, among the lowest in the Asian countries still outside the purview of this agreement.[4] Because of its political instability under changing military dictatorships, however, such joint ventures remained few in number. In 1989, there were only 15 of them. They were concentrated in modern factory buildings, which were also often located in the first Export Processing Zones (EPZ) that the military government set up for such purposes in 1983 in the port town Chittagong and in 1993 at the outskirts of the capital Dhaka.

The large majority of garment factories were set up without direct foreign involvement and by retired civil servants, army officers or others from the urban middle class – not by businessmen or industrialists. Despite their lack of experience in garment production, they could afford to try their luck thanks to lax lending practices by development financial institutes in Bangladesh, and thanks to secure access to sales markets in the United States and the EU, which ensured that most of them could repay credits.[5] Furthermore, they required relatively little funding. They did not produce the fabric for the garments and other materials themselves but procured them from local textile mills or from abroad, and they accommodated their ‘abodes of production’ in rented floors in large residential complexes in the cities of Chittagong and Dhaka, not in proper factories in the EPZs.[6] Lastly, they did not require much knowledge about the business and about garment production. They received foreign orders from local ‘buying houses’ and production in Bangladesh was then restricted to shirts and t-shirts, which required only relatively simple technical operations in ‘cutting trimming making’, and relatively simple and cheap machinery.[7]

The first joint ventures were, however, crucial for the transfer of technology and skills to Bangladesh. In 1978, Desh Garments, for example, sent workers to South Korea for training so that they would then train other workers on the job. These skilled workers were highly sought after, and they often joined local companies without direct foreign investment when the wages offered were high enough. Most of the trainees were men, as indeed most workers in the local garment industry so far had been men (see figure 1).[8] When the garment industry really took off in Bangladesh in the mid-1980s, it primarily employed women. Their share in the overall workforce grew to roughly 80 percent in the mid-1980s and stayed at that for the next decades.[9] The employment of women was almost exclusively confined to sewing, and soon sewing was, vice versa, also confined to women. The industry invoked and appropriated gender stereotyping, that is to say, imagining women workers as ‘nimble-fingered’, which exacerbated the feminization of labor. Since sewing was the most labor-intensive part of the production process, women soon vastly outnumbered men. However, men were usually employed in better-paid positions that often came with more authority. Thus, managers were all men, and so were supervisors, workers in the cutting and finishing sections, or mechanics fixing machines.[10]

The garment workforces were not only largely women, but they were also young – a good number even minors – and they were rural migrants, pushed to the garment hubs in Dhaka and Chittagong by an agrarian crisis that increased the share of landless households in the overall population from 32.8 percent in 1977 to 45 percent in 1984.[11] In the eyes of garment factory owners and the urban elite to whom they belonged, garment workers were thus sojourners who would work a few years in urban garment factories, but would eventually return to their villages and marry, with their savings from garment work paying for their dowry – as garment factory owners habitually told these women’s parents in the 1980s. Because of these social characteristics, the urban elite expected the garment workforce to be nimble-fingered, patient, and docile.

Figure 1: Riaz Garments Limited in 1978. Courtesy of Md. Salauddin©[12]

Figure 2: Garment shop floor, Dhaka 2011. Photo by Hasan Ashraf.

As the sociologist Petra Dannecker rightly argues, the picture of the docile ‘garment girl’ is seriously at odds with the measures of control they are exerted to, and it is also at odds with the often militant collective action in which they engage.[13] Women garment workers have organized themselves as of the late 1980s in the face of heavy repression by the military regime. Since the 1990s, after large-scale popular protest forced the military government to give way to parliamentary democracy, garment workers increasingly engaged in collective action, and launched major industry-wide strikes in 2006 and 2010. These strikes, as well as any attempt to organize, still met much repression. The government installed an industrial police force in 2010 and provided it with far-reaching authority to control workers and curb future ‘labor riots’.[14] Bangladesh’s garment industry body also centrally collected data on allegedly recalcitrant garment workers – that is, the ones aiming to organize themselves and other workers. Nevertheless, garment workers’ struggles were not without success. In 2006, a large strike of garment workers from thousands of factories launched in and around Dhaka led to the doubling of the minimum wage and to the Bangladesh Labor Act of 2006 that facilitated the formation of plant-level unions.[15] The frequent large-scale labor protests and their brutal suppression by the police also taunted the image of the industry. The same is true for a series of large-scale factory disasters that often – though not exclusively – provoked the protests. Global attention sparked especially around the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse in 2013, the most devastating accident in the global history of garment production that killed at least 1,134 workers and injured more than 2,500. Negotiations between the Government of Bangladesh, national and international trade union federations, and several brands (although some major ones refused to participate) finally led to the so-called Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.[16] As Hasan Ashraf and Rebecca Prentice show,[17] although the Accord addresses important issues regarding workers’ health and safety, it treats these issues merely as a matter requiring technical solutions and does not challenge the fundamental structures of exploitation, on which the industry rests. The Accord thus depoliticizes the situation of garment workers and delegitimizes any forms of protest beyond the conciliatory approach pursued by most mainstream unions.

Figure 3: Demonstration of garment workers on Labor Day in Dhaka, 2011. Photo by Hasan Ashraf.

Up-scaling and up-skilling in Bangladesh’s garment industry

The social profile of the garment workforce has significantly changed during the last years. When we returned to the garment factories for new research in late 2019, garment owners and unionists estimated that the share of men in the workforce had almost doubled since 2015, growing from roughly 20 percent to at least 40 percent. Studies that the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies and the International Labor Organization have undertaken come to the conclusion that men nowadays even slightly outnumber women in the garment workforces.[18]

Figure 4: Worker in front of an old garment factory in Dhaka, 2011. Photo by Hasan Ashraf.

According to these studies, one reason for the widespread re-masculinization of the garment workforce are the wage hikes in the garment industry since 2013, which make it more attractive for men to work there. There is of course a bitter irony in this, because it was largely women garment workers who had fought for these hikes in earlier strikes. A further reason has to do with spatial-temporal changes in the production process. Over the last decade, many companies relocated into new industrial parks on the outskirts of Dhaka and Chittagong, which offer enhanced infrastructure.[19] Because they cannot afford to commute, factory relocations also force workers to relocate. This disconnects them from the social-cum-political networks they have built up in the city and renders them more vulnerable to control. Furthermore, several of these new factories often also run 24/7 in two twelve-hour shifts. Since women are legally prohibited to regularly work night shifts, they cannot be employed in such factories.

Figure 5: A Google aerial view of the agglomeration of new, large factory compounds (in blue and light grey) in Bhaluka, 30 km north of Dhaka, 2021.

These spatial-temporal changes go hand in hand with recent technological changes. In the sewing factories we visited, sewing machines were still almost exclusively operated by women. But the lines had been re-arranged so that operators themselves could pass on cloth to their colleagues at the subsequent machine, without assistance from helpers, which reduced the number of workers required on sewing floors by 50 percent. In many sweater factories, we were shown the new computerized jacquard machines that were recently installed and that required few workers for operating them. These workers were skilled, had completed school and vocational training, some even had an engineering diploma, and they were all men. Furthermore, many knitwear garment manufacturers added expensive, technologically sophisticated spinning, dyeing and washing sections to their factories during the last decade to produce their own fabric, and also here workers are almost exclusively men. These are just a few examples, but they show the strong gender effects of recent changes in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

Figure 6: Worker with jacquard machines in a sweater factory, 2020. Photo by Md Shahidul Islam.[22]

These technological and social changes are part of larger changes in the garment industry. The business volume of the industry increased from 12.5 billion USD in 2009–10 to 34 billion USD in 2018–19. Over the same period, the size of the overall garment workforce has increased from 3.6 to 4.1 million, while the number of garment factories has declined from 5,000 to 4,500. These figures suggest that production is increasingly concentrated in fewer and larger factories, which is a further reason for relocating production to large industrial parks away from city centers. Garment factory owners also told us this. We were further told that this trend in turn is the corollary of the constant pressure of global garment brands for cheaper and faster production. This reduces profit margins for Bangladeshi producers to an extent that pushes many smaller ones into bankruptcy, while larger ones are compelled to grow, and to seek backward integration of production by investing in spinning and dyeing sections. Smaller factories that only ‘cut, trim and make’ still exist, but they are related to larger ‘composite factories’ within Bangladesh through an intricate web of subcontracting. Thus, pace historian Joshua Freeman, the garment industry in Bangladesh is not turning back the clock of industrial development to small, crowded, and dangerous factories resembling the 19th century US sweatshop,[20] but rather replicates the essential unevenness of capitalist development locally.[21] The COVID-19 pandemic, the disrupted supply chains from China, but most importantly the unilaterally canceled orders from Western brands worth more than 3 billion USD in the spring of 2020, have not halted this development, but – as it seems – have rather consolidated it.

The question is, of course, what social and political consequences these changes affect. As our research on these changes has just started, at this point we don’t know much about the women who lost their employment in the wake of the changes and who usually return to their villages. We also still require more research on the sociological profile of the new, better-educated, and male garment workers. However, the fact that they have completed vocational training or engineering colleges certainly suggests that they do not classify as the urban or rural poor. This is in line with their self-portrayals in the social media Ashraf followed. In their posts, these workers identify as an aspiring middle class (moddhobitto sreni). They emphasize their education, self-discipline, job commitment, and their special skills needed to operate high-end machines, documented, for example, with selfies in front of them. They also call themselves jacquard-er shoinik, that is, ‘the jacquard’s soldiers’ or ‘soldiers of the jacquard machine’. It is not far-fetched to assume that their efforts at masculinizing work in the garment sector are intended to counter the widespread assumptions and depiction of the feminine nature of the workforce – similar to the men workers Leslie Salzinger describes in her ethnography of Mexican maquiladoras.[23] The question is how subjectivity and their position in the industry shapes the politics of these better-educated male workers. As operators of sophisticated and expensive machinery, they work at a neuralgic point in the industry and thus occupy a more powerful position than the largely female operators. At the same time, the prospects of promotion and upward social mobility they enjoy as skilled male operators in contrast to their female colleagues has the potential to compromise them and to make them identify upwardly with management and the ‘middle class’, rather than with the working class, as women workers do. With whom the new male workers solidarize, and in what contexts, still needs to be seen.


References

[1] The EU and the US market shares constitute 61.75 percent (20.42 billion USD) and 18.20 percent (6.02 billion USD) respectively. 

[2] In fact, the first garments for export were produced in Bangladesh as early as the mid-1970s, by a public-sector undertaking and for socialist Eastern European countries. This was initiated by Bangladesh’s first, moderately socialist government after the country’s independence from Pakistan, but the first military government that took over in late 1975 soon abandoned it. See Hafiz G.A. Siddiqi, The Readymade Garment Industry of Bangladesh, Dhaka: The University Press Ltd, 2004, 76.

[3] GAAT was a treaty signed immediately after the Second World War to facilitate economic recovery from the war, which eventually led to the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

[4] Dina Siddiqi, Women in Question: Gender and Labor in Bangladeshi Factories, Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, 1996, 68. Markus Maurer states that in the mid-1980s, hourly wages in Bangladesh’s garment industry did not exceed 0,25 USD. This was even below the 0,35 USD hourly wages paid in Sri Lanka at the time, and which initially had been the favored destination for the relocation of garment production until the civil war broke out in 1983. Markus Maurer, Skill Formation Regimes in South Asia: A Comparative Study on the Path-Dependent Development of Technical and Vocational Education and Training for the Garment Industry, Frankfurt/M: Peter Lang, 2011, 297.

[5] Maurer, Skill Formation Regimes, 291.

[6] Siddiqi, Women in Question, 71.

[7] Maurer, Skill Formation Regimes, 297; Siddiqi, The Readymade Garment Industry, 127.

[8] When Desh Garments, one of the first Bangladeshi companies in the export business, sent the first 130 trainees to South Korea in 1978, only 18 among them were women.

[9] Petra Dannecker, Conformity or Resistance: Women Garment Workers in Bangladesh, UPL: Dhaka, 2002.

[10] Hasan Ashraf, “The Threads of Time in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry: Coercion, Exploitation and Resistance in a Global Workplace”, EthnoScripts 19/2, 2017, 81–106.

[11] Maurer, Skill Formation Regimes, 298.

[12] For more information and images, see: https://www.tbsnews.net/feature/panorama/reazuddin-tailor-who-became-first-rmg-exporter-bangladesh-196057.

[13] Petra Dannecker, Conformity or Resistance? Women Workers in the Garment Factories in Bangladesh, Bielefeld, Universität Bielefeld, 1999, 252.

[14] Dina Siddiqi, “Before Rana Plaza: Towards a History of Labour Organizing in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry”, in V. Crinis and A. Vickers (eds.), Labour in the Clothing Industry in the Asia Pacific, London: Routledge, 2017, 60–79, here 75.

[15] Siddiqi, “Before Rana Plaza”, 72–4; Hasan Ashraf and Rebecca Prentice, “Beyond factory safety: labor unions, militant protest, and the accelerated ambitions of Bangladesh’s export garment industry”, Dialectical Anthropology 43/ 1, 2018, 93–107, here 98.

[16] Sarah Ashwin, Naila Kabeer and Elke Schüßler, “Rana Plaza and its Aftermath: Contested Understandings in the Global Garment Industry after Rana Plaza”, Development and Change 51/ 5, 2020, 1296–1305.

[17] Ashraf and Prentice, “Beyond Factory Safety”.

[18] https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/Women-workforce-declining-in-RMG-sector. [accessed: 15.03.2021]. The ILO is a United Nations agency and a supranational entity, which works in various countries to establish an international labor standard.

[19] The Government of Bangladesh is in the process of establishing 100 EPZ for these and other industries at the periphery of Dhaka and Chittagong. See: http://www.beza.gov.bd/.

[20] Joshua Freeman, Behemoth: History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, New York: Norton, 2018, 318. We thank Görkem Akgöz for bringing this point to our attention.

[21] Sharryn Kasmir and Lesley Gill, “No Smooth Surfaces: The Anthropology of Unevenness and Combination”, Current Anthropology 59/ 4, 2018, 355–77.

[22]The photographer kindly permitted us to use the image in this publication. The original image can be accessed here: https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=2906966999591016&set=g.618071418618415.

[23] Leslie Salzinger, Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico’s Global Factories, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 


Christian Strümpell is a research associate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Hamburg University. He earned his PhD in social anthropology at the Free University Berlin in 2004 and has held research positions at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, in Halle, Germany, at Heidelberg University, and at Humboldt University in Berlin. His research interests cover the anthropology of labor and work, class, caste, and gender, and he has done extensive research on these topics in India and Bangladesh.

Hasan Ashraf is a member of the anthropology faculty at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka. He is also a PhD candidate in anthropology at Heidelberg University, in Germany. His dissertation explores the relationship between transnational industrialization and physical and mental health among Bangladeshi garment factory workers. He completed a fellowship at the Department of Anthropology at University of Amsterdam and has held a research position at the Wageningen University, in the Netherlands. His research interests are labor history, the mobility and politics of infrastructure, legal anthropology, and the anthropology of food.


Further articles in the Factory Reloaded series on TRAFO:

Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, 18 February 2021.

Görkem Akgöz, Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey, 5 March 2021.

André Weißenfels, Middle Class Factory: The (partial) Privilege of industrial Labor in Tunisia, 19 March 2021.

Rick Halpern, “The Pictures Are the Thing”: Farm Security Administration Photographers Document the American Factory in the Depression Era, 30 March 2021.

Josefine Carla Hoffmann, Training as a Gatekeeper at the Indo-German Factory, 16 April 2021.

Malak Labib, Re-shaping the “Socialist Factory” in Egypt in the Late 1960s–1970s, 30 April 2021.

Nurçin İleri, Nationalism on the Shop Floor: The Silahtarağa Electric Power Plant in the Early 1920s, 18 May 2021.

Nico Pizzolato, Disassembling Fordism from the Inside: Transnational Radicals in Detroit and Turin in the 1960s, 28 May 2021.

Goran Musić, European Textile Production Subcontracting and the Transformation of Apparel Factories in Yugoslavia and Morocco, 11 June 2021.

Mariana Stoler, Material Determinations and Workers’ Identity: An Analysis of an Argentinian Steelworks, 25 June 2021

Ivana Hadjievska, “The workshops are seedbeds for degeneration”: Forms of Exposure and Protection of Workers’ Bodies in Vardar Macedonia, 14 July 2021


Citation: Christian Strümpell and Hasan Ashraf, Of ‘nimble fingers’ and ‘jacquard’s soldiers’: Up-scaling, Up-skilling, and the Re-masculinization of Labor in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.07.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30448.


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