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Impact of Covid-19 on women in the Bangladesh garment industry

Research examining the impact of Covid on the gender dimension of exploitation in the Bangladesh garment sector.

Published: 26th January 2022

This report, entitled ‘The impact of Covid-19 on women workers in the Bangladesh garment industry’, a Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (the Modern Slavery PEC) research project. It was developed by Muhammad Azizul Islam, Pamela Abbott and Shamima Haque of the University of Aberdeen, Fiona Gooch of Traidcraft Exchange UK and Salma Akhter. The research was funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the open call for research on the impact of Covid-19 on modern slavery.

This research considers the impact of Covid-19 on women working in the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. Covid-19 increased vulnerability for workers in this sector and legal protections and grievance mechanisms were limited. The project combined qualitative interviews and focus group discussions, an online survey of auditors and analysis of legal protections for women to produce its findings and recommendations.

Key findings

  • Covid-19 exacerbated interrelated vulnerabilities in economic security, job security, food security, housing security and health and wellbeing, resulting in women workers struggling to support themselves and their families.
  • These serious disruptions and devastating impacts on workers were exacerbated &, in some cases, directly caused by retailers and brands selling into the UK and other markets in the Global North.
  • There was an increase in sexual and verbal abuse and symbolic violence mainly from line supervisors pushing women to work faster to meet unrealistic production targets.
  • The legal framework regulating the industry fails to meet the requirements of international conventions designed to protect and promote the rights of women in employment that Bangladesh has ratified.
  • Even where the legal framework regulating the industry protects workers, some employers disregard it with impunity.
  • Social compliance auditors do not always include women’s equal rights issues in their audits, and 40% of auditors surveyed do not audit the right to trade union recognition.

Priority recommendations

  • The Bangladesh Government should review and revise its legal protection for the rights of workers, including women in the ready-made garment industry
  • The Bangladesh Government should ensure that workers can claim and exercise their rights including the right to collective bargaining and paid maternity leave. They should increase penalties for non-compliance by businesses and consider the feasibility of an independent watchdog
  • Retailer and brands should consider emphasising respect for workers rights in the conditions of purchase from factories. They should also consider requiring social audits to include and/or prioritise worker rights
  • Retailers and brands should consider ensuring there is no forced labour in their supply chain by auditing factories that are sub-contracted work
  • UK retailers and brands need to collectively put pressure on the Bangladesh Government to review and revise its legal framework for protecting the rights of all workers
  • UK retailers must only source products from suppliers that have policies and mechanisms to address women’s rights
  • The UK Government should use diplomacy to encourage the Bangladesh Government to respect and act on international commitments and introduce legislate to promote and protect workers rights
  • The UK Government should establish a Garment Trading Adjudicator or independent watchdog to tackle abusive purchasing practices in international supply chains of ready-made garments