Ironically, such a response would actually harm Bangladeshi garment workers, most of whom are women, by forcing them into far worse situations than factory work.
What many people do not know is that the rise of factory work in the country has helped bring about significant positive change in many Bangladeshi lives—particularly for women. The country is home to 18.4 million of the world’s poorest people and has strict gender norms. Yet Bangladesh was recently called “the happiest economic story in the world right now,” as extreme poverty has plummeted.
Despite its dangers, factory work has slashed extreme poverty and increasedwomen’s educational attainment while lowering rates of child marriage in Bangladesh. It has also sparked cultural change towards more freedom for women, not only by enabling them to earn money but by granting them freedom of movement.
The country’s women‐dominated garment industry transformed the norm of purdah, or seclusion (literally, “veil”), that traditionally prevented women from working beyond the home, walking outside unaccompanied by a male guardian, or even speaking in the presence of unrelated men.
Many Bangladeshi women now interpret purdah to simply mean modesty instead of social and economic segregation. In the words of social economist Naila Kabeer of the London School of Economics, factory work let women “renegotiate the boundaries of acceptable behavior.” Today, in Dhaka and other industrial cities, women walk outside and interact with unrelated men.
The country industrialized rapidly, growing its number of export‐oriented factories from a handful in the mid‐1970s to around 700 by 1985. Women now hold more than 80% of manufacturing jobs.
The expansion of manufacturing in the country met with challenges early on. In 1985, Britain, France, and the United States imposed quota limitations on imports from Bangladesh in response to anti‐sweatshop campaigns financed by labor unions in the rich countries. Within three months, two thirds of Bangladeshi factories shuttered their gates and over 100,000 women were thrown out of work, many to face destitution.
The quotas were, in short, a disaster for Bangladeshi women. Britain and France removed their quotas in 1986, and Bangladesh’s garment industry has since expanded to thousands of factories employing millions. Unfortunately, protectionist sentiment is growing in rich countries, aided by sensationalized accounts of working conditions. The Bangladeshi General Secretary of National Garment Workers has warned that these could restrict Bangladesh’s growth.