Bangladeshi Garment Workers Get a Chance at an Education

Sumaiya Nehla Saif, Chittagong Community Manager
Chittagong, 4 July 2016

An article by the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights identified the collapse of Rana Plaza, a garments factory in Bangladesh, as the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry worldwide.  The building housed five factories and 3,639 workers and collapsed on April 24, 2013 due to poor structural conditions. The factories produced clothing for widely known fashion retailers in the United States, Europe and Canada. The workers did about 90 -100 hours a week and were paid as low as a few cents per hour and included minors, as well. Young “helpers” earned 12 cents an hour, while “junior operators” took home 22 cents an hour, or approximately $10.50 a week. Senior sewers received slightly more at a meager 24 cents an hour. These conditions resemble the working conditions of stitchers all over Bangladesh, even today. The ready-made garments (RMG) sector – mass-produced finished textile products of the clothing industry – is a hugely important part of the country's economy. Yet even after such tragedies as Rana Plaza, the industry continues to be exploitative to its workers.

A large proportion of RMG workers are young women who forgo education to help provide for their families, who are often poor. The Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh, known for empowering women from developing countries from Asia and Middle East, has taken an inclusive approach toward empowering garment workers to protect their livelihood and educate female workers to be future leaders.

Through the university's program, Pathways to Promise, which started in August 2015, 22 young garment workers have become students and are on a new path toward a better life. The program provides them with two years of preparatory courses, including English, mathematics, computer and critical thinking skills, which are needed to be eligible for the four-year undergraduate program. The students are also provided with free boarding, meals, healthcare and other essential needs for college. AUW has also looked into the financial responsibility of the workers towards their families and has asked the employers to utilize their corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds to provide the women with their usual monthly salaries for five years, even without guarantee that these workers will go back to work for them.

Building off the success of the pilot, AUW plans to take in new students from participating garment factories to carry on its commitment to empower and educate female workers from the RMG sector. It is promising to hear these students talk about gender discrimination and class discrimination in their classes and utilize this opportunity to rise above their humble beginnings. It is also a commendable step for the participating companies to agree to send their workers to get an education and compensate them over the five years. The Pathways to Promise initiative is a good start to providing new opportunities to young women with few alternatives. However, there are still about four-million workers out there who suffer from poor working conditions and unacceptable wages and similar projects are called for to ensure a more dignified future for them.

Photo: Asian University for Women

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