They comprised 53 percent of the workforce in 2016 down from 58 percent four years earlier, according to a think-tank
Early on New Year's Day, Shahina Begum set out for Mirpur 7 in the capital as a big garment factory has been set up there.
She arrived at the gate of Concorde Garments Limited around 7:30am and stood near the entrance, hoping to be hired.
A crowd gathered and then vanished into the shroud of winter dust in the next half an hour. But nobody called her inside. Unlike other jobseekers, mostly female, Shahina waited a little longer, then walked back home.
Maybe another factory will hire her, and her luck will smile. It was a hope she expressed in a recent conversation with The Business Standard.
Shahina, along with 70 others, lost her job during a lay-off four months ago. The management had at the time held out the assurance that they would relocate the production unit. But that promise came to naught.
Her story illustrates the plight of countless female garment workers fighting to get back into the RMG sector, which was once perceived as the major destination for female employment and empowerment.
One major reason behind the drop in female employment is technology, that is, replacing the labour that women gave to these factories for years. And with their inability to operate machines, new jobs are mostly taken by men.
Long working hours and stress from high production targets take a physical and psychological toll on all garment workers, which is why they frequently move from one factory to another and take breaks between jobs.
Shahina had also quit work several times owing to pregnancy, sickness and other familial reasons, but she always had to get a job after a break because of the financial constraints of the family that her husband, a construction worker, is unable to overcome alone.
Things are different this time.
TECHNOLOGY LEAVING WOMEN BEHIND
New equipment and machinery had cut down on manpower in these factories. For example, one technician in the cutting section can now operate machinery which previously required four operators. So at least three workers in such a scenario face the risk of losing their jobs.
About 92 percent of the garment factories have seen technological upgradation since 2010, according to a study by the International Labour Organisation and UN Women in July last year.
But the number of people employed by the sector has been almost static, but the volume of exports nearly tripled to $34 billion dollars over the last decade. That means the productivity of a worker increased with the introduction of new equipment.
The compliance issue in Bangladesh's garment factories came under international scrutiny in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, which led to the death of some 1,134 people, mostly garment-workers, and left scores of others injured.
Since then, a wave of automation for ensuring compliance has ensued in the RMG sector. This rapid remediation and automation process has caused hundreds of women to lose their jobs, though, Economist Zahid Hussain told The Business Standard.
However, the ILO study placed employment growth between 2010 and 2018 at 0.9 percent as the industry grew bigger with larger production volumes and export.
Ironically, it is a condition where women are losing jobs because of a lack of education and skills.
Women working in the industry are less educated than men, said Nazneen Ahmed, senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).So when it comes to learning complex, modern technologies, there is a great deal of reluctance from their side.
In addition to the trouble in learning new technologies at the workplace, female workers are also overburdened with household responsibilities.
In most cases, a female worker works an extra hour or two every day to meet her daily target. After her working hours, she engages herself in household chores waiting to be done.
They live in slums and other cheap accommodation – which they struggle to afford with their limited income, and have to wait to use the shared facilities, including toilets. If the worker has a child, it means additional responsibilities on her shoulders, said Shahina.
According to many workers, household responsibilities discourage them from spending time on developing skills through training as such activities require additional time after office hours.
"Household responsibilities also hold back women from taking a supervisory role," Nazneen said, adding that working becomes difficult during pregnancy as women face trouble bearing the stress caused by their need to carry out both professional and domestic responsibilities.
In such situations, the factory authorities should shift women into doing lighter work along with providing them with food and time to rest, Nazneen recommended.
She also said such facilities are seldom provided by the factory authorities and pregnant workers therefore feel they have little choice but to leave their jobs.
"Employers see such resignations as an opportunity to not have to provide the women with maternity leave and other benefits," Nazneen said.
The CPD, a leading think-tank, estimates the number of female workers at 53 percent in 2016, down from the 58 percent in 2012.
Steps should be taken to rein in the situation because the sector is the biggest formal employer of women from impoverished families. Otherwise, the gap between male and female employment will go into reverse and widen as in other manufacturing industries.
BIDS researcher Nazneen noted that production targets have to be rational and brands can play a role here through working with the leadership in the garment sector. Moreover, women should be given opportunities for on-the-job training within their working hours.
An effective way of turning the tide in favour of women workers might be to hire more women in managerial and supervisory positions in the garment factories.