‘Education is key, of that I’m sure’
Mahjabeen Quader works as a Senior Policy Adviser focusing on sustainable value chains at the Dutch embassy in Dhaka. The ready-made garments (RMG) sector accounts for 80 procent of Bangladesh’s total exports and employs over 4 million people, 60 procent of them women. 'The sector has brought women noticeable independence. But there’s a lot of hardship as well.’
‘When the sector was booming in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was a major catalyst for our economy and for our female work force. For women to get out of their homes and be economically empowered was a revolution in itself.’
‘The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 was a brutal wake-up call for Bangladesh. So many workers died when that building collapsed. It was a dark day, both domestically and internationally. The country’s image was at stake. An emergency response was needed. That’s where the Dutch embassy got involved.'
'Along with other donors the Netherlands funded an ILO (International Labour Organization) project that focused on improving working conditions in the RMG sector. A lot has happened since then. Generally speaking, the sector has become much safer and more compliant. Numerous smaller, older, unsafe and non-compliant factories have been shut down, while newer, modern facilities have opened their doors. The government has also managed to build its labour inspection capacity and slowly but steadily improve factory safety. We can now say that the RMG sector is much safer.’
‘However, a lot still needs to be done. The Netherlands is at the forefront when it comes to promoting labour rights in the sector, especially for women. From having a decent place to work to earning a fair wage. But women face more problems on the work floor: from health and maternity issues, to sexual and other forms of harassment. Yes, the sector has brought women noticeable independence. But there’s a lot of hardship as well.’
‘Education is key, of that I’m sure. It’s what makes people strong, alert and aware of their rights in society – it sets people free. How do you know that your rights are being violated, if you never learned you have them in the first place?
‘I am, for my part, quite outspoken. I learned that, when you work with men, conveying the right message is critical in proving your worth. Otherwise you’re not taken seriously. This is a real struggle for women at all levels everywhere: girls at school, RMG workers, and even for me.’
‘We recently ran an RMG project to train female workers and improve their skills. Many of the women who signed up didn’t come in the end. Because they thought it would be too much work, or because their husbands said no. But the women who were there that day fought and stayed. And today they are very much appreciated and inspiring others!’
‘I believe finding the right work-life balance is challenging for women everywhere in the world. But in Bangladesh, where women also have to manage the household, it’s a continuous struggle. Back at the World Bank Group I used to say that men, being able to stay after work, can do much more networking. Whereas we women, as soon as our work is done, head straight home.’
‘I will not say that promoting labour rights was a childhood dream. But when I switched from my commercial bank career to the World Bank Group, went on field trips and met people, my passion grew. Seeing how you can make a difference in someone’s life and help them to get out of poverty is a huge affirmation of the value of the work that you do. It’s the reason why I keep going.’