WOMEN account for 80 per cent of the labour force in the apparel sector that earn the major share of export revenue, but they routinely endure gender discrimination and sexual harassment. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, workers while demanding equal and safe workplace environment at protests in Dhaka, said that the labour law and polices failed to protect them. When women in public services are entitled to six months’ maternity leave, women apparel workers are allowed only four months’ paid leave. In doing so, the government is, as various labour leaders claim, approve a class discrimination among women. Bangladesh has not signed the ILO Convention on Maternity Protection, which allows for at least 18 weeks’ maternity leave and an additional compulsory six weeks’ leave after childbirth or more, in cases of complications. Although the labour law exempts women who will have a child within 10 weeks or had a child in the past 10 weeks from ‘arduous’ work, the lack of clarity in the legal instrument has made this provision mere rhetoric. Bangladesh enjoys the fruits of their labour but refuses to grant them their equal right and dignity, contradicting the much-celebrated narrative of women’s empowerment of successive governments.
Women in the apparel sector encounter all forms of gender discrimination, including proper maternity benefits. However, the maternity provision that is there in the labour law is in practice. Media reports show how pregnant women are compelled to engage in long hours of labour-intensive work to meet the production deadline. Factory management often fire women when they come to know of their pregnancy or asked them to leave and return after the child is born. According to the labour law, all workers employed in a factory are entitled to 14 days’ sick leave provided that a registered physician certifies the illness. In practice, factory managements often deny workers their entitled leave, a labour law violation that has proved to be fatal on many occasions. A number of civic organisations in their surveys found that more than 80 per cent of apparel workers face sexual harassment at work with no effective grievance and prevention mechanism to stop this. The management is also known to be treating women’s labour unequally as women are hardly promoted to higher positions. More importantly, the gap between a living wage and the existing minimum wage is so sharp that women are forced to take up overtime hours in addition to their household labour in a patriarchal society.
For the government to become a true champion of women’s empowerment, it must take up the challenge to fight gender discrimination in the industrial sector. In doing so, it should amend the labour law for a uniform maternity leave provision for all women and penalise factory managements for discriminating along the gender lines.
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