The automation of manufacturing reduced the female workers’ participation ratio in the garment sector to 60.8 per cent in 2016 from 64 per cent in 2015, according to a study by the private think-tank Centre for Policy Dialogue. The deceleration of female workers’ participation meant the ratio of male workers is on the rise because the factory owners think female workers are not able to handle modern machineries properly, said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Research Director of the CPD. In 2015, the female to male workers’ participation ratio was 64:36, but it has now declined to 60.8: 39.2, according to Moazzem.

The owners have been upgrading the factories by installing modern machineries mainly to maintain the strict lead-time set by international retailers.

Some 47.37 per cent of large enterprises and 25 per cent medium enterprises used advanced technologies, Moazzem said recently while presenting the study on the ongoing upgradation in garment factories. Female workers are proportionately less knowledgeable about operating different machines compared with their male counterparts, according to the study prepared by surveying 193 garment enterprises and 2,123 workers. The study found that investment in the sector increased after the Rana Plaza building collapse. Both the entrepreneurs and buyers have kept their confidence in Bangladesh’s garment sector, which created additional employment at a time when workers were losing jobs due to closure of a good number of factories. Some 41 per cent of the enterprises surveyed operate in rented spaces and about 34 per cent in shared building.

About 16 per cent of the entrepreneurs surveyed have mentioned that they will either relocate or close the factory within 1 to 5 years. The employment growth in the garment enterprises has somewhat decelerated in recent years, the study found. The average yearly growth of employment in the sample enterprises during 2012-16 was 3.3 per cent, down from 4.01 per cent during 2005-2012. The survey found 16 per cent of the sample enterprises employed foreign staff. According to the survey result, the workers’ monthly wage on average is Tk 7,270 for male and Tk 7,058 for female, excluding the bonuses. Most of the firms have workers’ participation committees (WPC); trade unions are almost non-existent in only 3.3 per cent of the surveyed factories. According to the amended labour act 2013, members of the WPC shall be elected. Some 68.9 per cent of the WPCs mentioned that workers in their factories have been elected by votes.

Regarding the trade unions and wage hike of the workers, Rehman Sobhan, Chairman of the CPD, advised the trade union leaders to stay united. “You have to act together. You need to jointly bargain,” he said, while citing the major industrial action taken by the jute workers in the 1960s as an examples.

They could do this jointly because they had the power to act together, said Sobhan, who chaired the event.

The bigger garment groups are well ahead in their employment of modern technologies, while the medium factories are lagging behind, said Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow of the CPD.

“Some small factories will have to finally get out of this business,” he said.

Babul Akter, President of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, said although the number of trade unions in the garment sector is high their quality is low. Akter demanded Tk 16,000 as the minimum wage in the next revision of the wage structures.

Siddiqur Rahman, President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said the wage board will determine the salary of the workers based on the workers’ necessity and competitiveness.