Dina Siddiqi: Do Bangladeshi factory workers need saving? Sisterhood in the post-sweatshop era

© Tushikur Rahman Aroti,18, was working on the 6th floor. She was rescued after 2 days of the building collapse. The rescuer had to cut her right leg to get her out of the building. Her mother and father were also working in the same building. Her mother 'Titon'' died and her body was rescued on the first night and her father 'Odhir Dash'' got rescued on the first night of the incident.
© Tushikur Rahman


This 2009 article revisits the figure of the ‘third world sweatshop worker’, long iconic of the excesses of the global expansion of flexible accumulation in late twentieth-century capitalism. I am interested in how feminist activists concerned with the uneven impact of neo-liberal policies can engage in progressive political interventions without participating in the ‘culture of global moralism’ that continues to surround conventional representations of third world workers.
I situate my analysis in the national space of Bangladesh, where the economy is heavily dependent on the labour of women factory workers in the garment industry and where local feminist understandings of the ‘sweatshop economy’ have not always converged with global feminist/left concerns about the exploitation inherent in the (now not so new) New International Division of Labor. The tensions or disjunctures between ‘global’ and ‘local’ feminist viewpoints animate the concerns of this article. I argue that decontextualized critiques derived from abstract notions of individual rights, and corresponding calls for change from above – calls on the conscience of the feminist and the consumer, for instance – can entail troubling analytical simplifications. They highlight some relations of power while erasing others, thereby enacting a different kind of violence and at times undermining mobilizations on the ground. I draw attention to the multiple fields of power through which much of the activism across borders continues to be produced and reproduced discursively. This kind of framing fits all too easily into existing cultural scripts about gender and race elsewhere, and produces ethical obligations to ‘save’ women workers.

[Excerpt…]

Shifting national discourse on the golden girls of Bengal   

‘We are the new golden girls of Bengal’. Nazma Akter20 (former child factory worker, Dhaka, May 2003).

In the national imagination, garment workers’ bodies oscillate from being national assets to threats to the moral order of things. Official discourse has always been couched in terms of benefits to the nation and its underprivileged female citizens – specifically as contributions to national income and individual family incomes. State discourses have shifted in emphasis over time but point to the increased visibility of its predominantly female labour force as a sign of women’s emancipation from the strictures of traditional patriarchal structures. In 1993, the then President of Bangladesh, Abdur Rahman Biswas, declared at the Annual Apparel and Textile Exposition:

The garment industry is one of the major foreign exchange earning sectors of Bangladesh. [yIt] has come as a blessing to our teeming millions who could not for so long find any sources of employment. It has especially made the womenfolk self-reliant by creating large-scale employment opportunities for them. (BGMEA, 1993)

Industrialists invoked garment workers to extol their own (by implication almost revolutionary) roles in national development. The vision of progress and change they advanced effectively sidelines questions of labour rights. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Employers Association stated in one of its brochures, also in 1993:

As a consequence [of the industry], a socio-economic development process has been introduced in the country, the most significant one is the employment of a huge [number of] women workers who would otherwise be unemployed and remain victims of social discrimination. For the first time in the history of Bangladesh this industry has created the highest employment opportunity for the country’s underprivileged womenfolk in an organized industrial sector. Most of these female workers were able to improve their quality of living by working in the ready made garment industry. (ibid)

This sounds strikingly similar to the sentiments of some male trade unionists who could be extremely critical of working conditions but sympathetic to the cause of women workers: ‘The industry has been good for women, it has come as an aashirbad (blessing) for women workers will never be able to reenter the home in the same way again. It is a way to come out of backwardness’.21

Initially, discursive representations of the industry focused on its transformative potential in turning the country’s ‘womenfolk’ from victims of backwardness and social discrimination into a self-reliant group who would then escape the strictures of conventional domesticity. The passage from the private sphere of the home to the public sphere of wage work is a critical trope here. Significantly, the language of self-reliance and progress has been subtly modified in the present decade. As we will see, the re-imagining of the nation as ‘Muslim’ rather than simply poor and third world was achieved in part through the resignification of women’s labour in the garment industry.

As mentioned earlier, in anticipation of the dismantling of the MFA, the government and garment trade groups lobbied for duty-free access to US markets for Bangladeshi goods. Taking a cue from unfolding US foreign policy elsewhere, Bangladesh tried to project itself as a reliable ally in the ‘War on Terror’ and so worthy of trade concessions. It was not an unreasonable direction in which to proceed given that earlier the US had provided its closest ally in south Asia, Pakistan, with considerable concessions in the area of garment exports, directly affecting Bangladesh’s quotas.

As the United States remained unconvinced of Bangladesh’s strategic importance, the Bangladesh government produced another potential trump card, also derived from the contingencies of the so-called War on Terror. It tried to capitalize on its image as a Muslim but moderate country, the second largest Muslim democracy, and a trailblazer in the emancipation of Muslim women’s rights. The emerging rhetoric invoked the image of oppressed Muslim women coming out of seclusion and into the liberated world of wage labour. Officials based requests for US concessions on warnings of threats to women workers’ new-found empowerment (thereby resonating with both the neo-liberal and anti-terror agendas). In December 2004, Morshed Khan, then Foreign Minister, was quoted in a story on the MFA in the New York Times:

It is a silent revolution that has taken place in our country. For the first time in a Muslim country, hundreds of thousands of women in their late teens and early 20’s are wearing cosmetics, carrying handbags and walking to work every day. [y] There is no way in Bangladesh that this government or any other government can send them back to the kitchen. (Bradsher, 2004)

The New York Times feature, which labels Bangladesh as ‘one of the few Muslim democracies in the world’ ends with a quote from Khan: ‘If we try to take the  women workers back to the home, back to the kitchen, that will be a bigger bombshell than any terrorist attack’ (ibid).

Several features of the Minister’s comments are noteworthy, even if the discursive strategy of asking to protect the country’s economy in order to protect its women’s march toward modernity has yet to yield benefits. Garment workers become signs of the nation’s modernity through their bodies rather than through their labour. It is their visibility, mobility and comportment (cosmetics and handbags) that are indicative of a ‘silent revolution’. The underlying construction of Muslim women who must be brought out of seclusion and into the public sphere converges with Liberal feminist discourses and market-based notions of empowerment.

At the same time, the Minister’s ending comments betray a fear of the female garment worker shared by other Bangladeshis. The memory of large-scale labour retrenchment in 2001, and the prospect of several hundred thousand more unemployed young women, brought to the surface an undercurrent of discomfort that had always existed in middle-class society. Glossed as concern for workers, much of the public discourse at this time exhibited acute social anxiety, inflected by class prejudice. The fear was that these unemployed working-class women would corrupt the moral order of society through their presumed undisciplined and exaggerated sexuality. The excess of fear recalled descriptions by Ong of reactions to Malay women’s entry into the modern economy, complete with ‘feverish visions of unregulated female sexuality freed from the ethical order maintained by fathers, brothers and husbands’ (Ong, 2006: 35).

The prevailing discourse of social contamination demonstrated once again how social and political anxieties generated from a lopsided development regime are displaced on to public fears of working women’s autonomy and sexuality. Ironically, factory owners legitimated their calls for state assistance to the industry by exploiting such fears. In an appeal for help in the post-MFA period, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Employers Association (BGMEA) proclaimed:

This [retrenchment] will bring about socio-economic havoc to Bangladesh, the incidence of which might be felt outside. Because the retrenched women workers will find it difficult to go back to the village home of which they have the bitter socio-economic experiences on the one hand and have adapted to the urban lifestyle on the other. The retrenched male will not have any possible alternative of employment elsewhere, but to add to the social evils and anarchy, which will go beyond any boundary measures of the government. That means a total socio-economic imbalance might emerge in the country (quoted in Ward et al., 2004: 4–5).

The same New York Times story on the MFA reported – without citing any sources or statistics – that a ‘slump in orders during the American economic slowdown in 2001 produced a surge in prostitution and a surge in illegal trafficking of women to overseas brothels. Bangladesh officials fear what could happen if their country cannot stay competitive’ (Bradsher, 2004). Predictions of the ‘fall’ of desperate young women into prostitution circulated in the media immediately following the extensive retrenchment in the garment sector in 2001. These accounts, conjectural for the most part yet presented with great authority on television and the print media, feed into predominant bourgeois suspicions of the ‘truth’ about working-class morality. Not surprisingly, the narratives contain more than an air of prurience and voyeuristic pleasure.

Garment workers live their own brand of moral struggle against this middle-class discourse. For instance, when Nazma Akter the labour leader claims the identity of a ‘golden girl’, using the English words, she weaves together multiple allusions to past and present to lay claims to a very specific identity. First, in literal terms, she references garment workers as producers of wealth and as productive citizens of the nation. Second, she draws on cultural images of a prosperous golden Bengal of the past, most strongly associated with the national anthem (which begins with the line, O, My Golden Bengal). She also makes an allusion to jute, known as the golden fibre, which until the 1970s was the principal export of the region that is now Bangladesh. One could read Akter’s subjectivity as interpellated by the nation and its economic imperatives. Certainly, she taps into discourses that valorize garment workers as heroines of the nation. I suggest, however, that through her claims to a place in the national community, she also insists on the social respectability otherwise unavailable to working class women.

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