Housing initiatives for workers in the growing ready-made garments sector

Raiya Kishwar Ashraf, Dhaka Community Manager
Dhaka, 29 July 2014

UNDP reports that about 70 percent of Dhaka's population lives on just 20 percent of its land. This leads to the massive generation of informal settlements by the urban poor. However, while studies show that 80 percent of all slums and informal settlements are over 20 years old, little has been done policy-wise to address this issue. The garments industry in Bangladesh employs about 1.8 million people who make up almost half of its industrial workforce, and a significant number are clustered in and around the capital, Dhaka. The ready-made garments industry is growing and the low-paid garment workers continue to flock to the city, finding accommodation in slums and private housing, which lack the security and quality to maintain a good life.

Several NGOs are involved in providing services and aid to slum dwellers and the urban poor, and in many cases NGO pressure and organization have driven government action for this population. Access to government services remains a challenge for the urban poor. Ninety percent of the garments workers are women and girls, and this is where organizations such as Nari Uddog Kendra (NUK) or Centre for Women Initiatives step in to bridge the gap. Conforming to ILO Conventions, NUK started their Garment Factory and Workers Support Program in 1991 with the aim of providing training and assistance to garment factories and related policymakers that would set the groundwork for better working and living conditions for all garment workers.

NUK advocates better and safer conditions for workers in factories and the business as a whole, so there was a need to explore the living conditions and safety of these workers. As a model for future change and to set an example for similar projects proposed to garments companies and the government, NUK opened a Women Workers' Hostel in central Dhaka's Mohakhali area, close to several garment factories. This first three-storied hostel houses 84 workers and has communal cooking facilities. The workers ensure the upkeep of the hostel while one manager, one teacher, one guard, and one cook provide all the supporting facilities. The center provides safe housing for a third of the price the workers would have paid at a private rental. This also helps develop community learning and a healthy environment for the young girls and women, who spend most of their day in challenging working conditions.

Currently NUK operates hostels at three locations across the city and houses about 300 women. They plan to expand the project to several six-floor buildings — the first two floors of which could be rented out to shops, stores and other commercial facilities that would help to sustain the hostel financially. NUK ensure that these hostels maintain optimal quality for the workers and are close to the garments factories. They wish to encourage further development of such facilities through the factories themselves, rather than through third parties.

This model of living-workplace proximity could be further used by the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) to push for further decentralization from the capital city. With the factories and workers' housing located in the suburbs or in less developed cities, costs and expenses could be reduced for both the factory owners and their workers — leading to more systematized and inclusive planning opportunities for the capital city.

NUK promotes and has implemented several programs that provide the support and advocacy the garments industry needs in improving the lives of its workers and sustaining healthy growth in the future. As part of its continuing efforts to improve the lives of the urban poor, the NGO also provides basic healthcare services to workers in about 100 factories across Dhaka.

Photo: Taslima Akhter

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