When Rana Plaza collapsed outside Dhaka on April 24 of this year, the building didn't discriminate; it simply crumbled, burying everyone inside and killing 1,129 in the world's deadliest industrial accident since Bhopal.
But 80% of Bangladesh's garment workers are women, and according to some estimates women made up over 80% of those killed or injured in the collapse that day.
They are the most recent high-profile casualties of a race to the bottom in a ready-made garment industry which has long profited from women's disadvantage. In Bangladesh, a surplus of impoverished, illiterate, socially and economically oppressed women desperate for work fuels the country's export economy. Most of the women in the garment industry are rural migrants, and for most it’s their first job. Factory owners have deliberately feminized the industry, preferring to hire women for their very low wage expectations, their willingness to work longer hours than their male counterparts, and the ease of dismissing them.
The day before the collapse, workers were sent home as inspectors examined the cracks that had begun to appear in the building’s walls. The next day, they were told by management they had to come to work or forfeit a month’s wages. Lacking the capability to resist management’s demands, they came.
The precariousness of poor Bangladeshi women’s social and economic position is inextricably intertwined with the root causes of the Rana Plaza tragedy. Yet gender has not been a focus of the various efforts that governments, NGOs, and mostly Western brands have made over the past few months to address weak governance in Bangladesh’s garment sector.
These players have, however, highlighted the opportunities that the garment industry has afforded the country’s women. US retailers who have signed on to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which calls for independent inspections of all factories used by member retailers, as well as “safety and empowerment” training and a grievance hotline for workers, acknowledge that “the Bangladesh garment industry (which employs millions of workers, roughly 80 percent of whom are women) provides invaluable economic opportunity in the country.”
In their joint statement regarding the “Sustainability Compact for continuous improvements in labour rights and factory safety in the Ready Made Garment and knitwear industry,” under which the Government of Bangladesh commits to adopt amendments to Bangladesh’s labor law to improve freedom of expression and collective bargaining rights, to add hundreds of safety inspectors, and to educate and train workers on their rights as well as safety and health issues, representatives from the Government of Bangladesh and the European Union remark on “the positive impact of the RMG and knitwear sector in Bangladesh on the … empowerment of women.”
At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on labor issues in Bangladesh that I attended in early June, where witnesses discussed suspending Bangladeshi trade preferences under the Generalized System of Preferences, Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, stated in his testimony: “Bangladesh’s development gains have come in part because of the growth of its ready-made garment sector…a sector that employs between two and three million Bangladeshi women, helping to lift them out of poverty and empowering them socially and economically.”
It’s true—working in garment factories gives many women regular income and a measure of personal autonomy and leverage within their households that agricultural or domestic work has rarely afforded them. But until now, abysmal working conditions have kept Bangladeshi women from benefiting from globalization in a paradigm-shifting or even sustainable way. When the garment industry’s most visible stakeholders emphasize how the industry benefits women, while neglecting to acknowledge the fact that their exclusion from the wider labor market contributes to the perpetuation of the types of conditions that lead to Rana Plaza, they obscure a critical part of the story.
Private compliance and capacity-building initiatives like the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety have historically had very limited impact on labor standards worldwide; companies have got to get the story straight if their efforts are to have a chance of effecting meaningful change. And while the labor law amendments the Bangladeshi government has begun to implement, under pressure from the US and EU, may prevent another catastrophe on the scale of Rana Plaza, sustained progress will depend on coordinated initiatives that comprehend and account for the role that gender plays in Bangladesh’s ready made garment industry.
* JD Candidate, 2014.
 Suvendrini Kakuchi, Female Garment Workers Bear Brunt of Tragedy, Inter Press Service News Agency (May 10, 2013) http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/05/female-garment-workers-bear-brunt-of-tragedy/. Exact figures on the gender breakdown have not been reported.
 Naila Kabeer and Simeen Mahmud, Rags, Riches and Women Workers: Export-oriented Garment Manufacturing in Bangladesh, in Chains of Fortune: Linking Women Producers and Workers with Global Markets 148 (Marilyn Carr, ed. 2004).
 Shamsul Khan, Trade unions, gender issues and the ready-made garment industry of Bangladesh, in Women’s Employment in the Textile Manufacturing Sectors of Bangladesh and Morocco 180 (Carol Miller and Jessica Vivian, eds. 2002).
 Michelle Chen, Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Shows Cracks in the System, Huffington Post (Apr. 28, 2013, 11:08 A.M.) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelle-chen/factory-collapse-bangladesh_b_3173627.html
 Statement of Purpose by Leaders of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, http://www.bangladeshworkersafety.org/wp-content/uploads/CEO-Letter-7.9-CR-11pm.pdf, last visited Sep. 9, 2013.
 Joint Statement, European Commission, http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2013/july/tradoc_151601.pdf (last visited Sep. 9 2013).
“The U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) is a program designed to promote economic growth in the developing world by providing preferential duty-free entry for up to 5,000 products when imported from one of 127 designated beneficiary countries and territories.” Office of the United States Trade Representative, Generalized System of Preferences, Office of the United States Trade Representative, http://www.ustr.gov/trade-topics/trade-development/preference-programs/generalized-system-preference-gsp (last visited Sep. 9, 2013).
 Robert Blake, Statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Labor Issues in Bangladesh June 6, 2013 http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Blake_Testimony.pdf
 See generally Richard M. Locke, The Promise and Limits of Private Power: Promoting Labor Standards in a Global Economy, Cambridge University Press 2013. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, another agreement that many European brands have signed on to, may prove more successful than most, due to its legally binding nature and union involvement.