Ever since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last year, the garment industry in general, and the Bangladesh garment industry in particular, has faced severe criticism from human rights groups and anti-globalization activists over the way it treats workers. This has led large buyers as well as countries such as the US to either restrict or boycott garment imports from Bangladesh.

Several voices of reason have argued that such import curbs can end up hurting precisely those for whom such measures are meant: garment workers, who will be left without a job, and have to return to a life of back-breaking poverty. But such voices of reason have usually been drowned out by the hysteria of activists, who tend to dominate the discourse on the subject. The dominant narrative, fed by anecdotes and shaped by activists, tends to focus largely on the ‘exploitative’ wages and working conditions, and completely ignores the improvements in the lives of millions of workers, mostly women, because of factory jobs.

In a ground-breaking new study on the impact of the garment industry on the lives of Bangladeshi women, economists Rachel Heath of the University of Washington and A. Mushfiq Mobarak of the Yale School of Management show how far the dominant discourse has become out of tune with reality. Heath and Mobarak compared the lives of Bangladeshi women living close to garment factories with those living far away, and also to the years before the factories were set up in those villages. They provide hard evidence to show that the setting up of factories not only changed how women viewed their own future but also reshaped societal perceptions about them. Girls exposed to the garment sector tend to delay marriage and child birth, and also tend to study more than their peers in other villages, the study shows.

While many credit Bangladesh’s improved female literacy rates to a state-sponsored conditional cash transfer program to encourage female schooling, the authors provide evidence to show that the garment sector has had a much greater impact than the conditional cash transfer program in boosting female literacy rates. “The demand for education generated through manufacturing growth appears to have a much larger effect on female educational attainment compared to a large-scale government conditional cash transfer program to encourage female schooling," write Heath and Mobarak in their recently published research paper. Since the better paying garment jobs are usually bagged by numerate and educated workers, it acts as a powerful signalling device for parents, who are now motivated to invest in their child’s education.

“Our estimates suggest that roughly 14.8 percentage points of the national gain in girls’ enrolment could be attributed to the growth in this export industry (garments)," write Heath and Mobarak.

Painting garment factories as hell-holes that condemn workers to a life of unmitigated misery may make for a sharp critique of the modern world and its globalizing ways but it tends to overlook the counter-factual: how lives for these workers would have been, in the absence of factory jobs. One of the few studies that tried to answer that question was by P. Hewett and S. Amin, which found that garment workers had better living conditions and higher income levels than their peers living traditional lifestyles. The study also found little evidence to support the claim that garment workers suffered more serious health problems than non-workers. The differences in health outcomes, or minor ailments were more likely the effect of urbanization than of factory work, the study argued.

Heath and Mobarak’s study provides even more compelling answers to the same question by showing how women’s lives have been altered dramatically because of the presence of garment sweatshops. Their study also succeeds in identifying the possible mechanisms through which garment jobs bring about improvements in the lives of people in Bangladesh. For instance, the duo show that gains in female education are less likely to be driven by a wealth effect (when family members are engaged in garment work, and there is more money to fund everyone’s schooling) and more likely to be driven by the combined effect of two disparate drivers of female education: one, an overall increase in the status and bargaining power of women in society because so many of them now have regular jobs, and second, the changing returns to education and basic skills because of the advent of factories.

The evidence presented by Heath and Mobarak underscores the importance of the workplace in the empowerment of women, and in improving gender outcomes. It holds essential lessons for countries such as India, which has among the lowest proportions of working women in the world, and which has been facing an uphill battle against patriarchy and sexual offences.

One of the forgotten lessons from the industrialization of economies in East and Southeast Asia is the profound impact it had on the lives of women who flocked to the newly built factories of those countries throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The share of women in manufacturing crossed the halfway mark in most of these economies before declining as old labour-intensive industries such as textiles and garments gave way to new age capital intensive industries such as electronics. Still, the share of women in regular jobs in these economies today far exceeds what it was half a century ago, as the 2012 World Development Report pointed out.

The feminist economist Stephanie Seguino of the University of Vermount has argued in her writings that the growth of export oriented units in the newly industrialized Asian economies relied heavily on women because they were seen as cheaper, and more pliable workers as compared to men, and that gender wage inequality has been a key driver of growth in these economies.

The actual record on the gender gap in wages in these economies has been mixed, with economies such as South Korea and Hong Kong closing the gap while others such as Singapore and Taiwan have failed to do so. But such comparisons again tend to ignore the counterfactual: on how life for these women would have been, in the absence of factory jobs. It is possible that the low costs of hiring women workers was a key driver of manufacturing growth but it is also likely that these manufacturing jobs helped alter gender norms and improve gender outcomes in these countries.

As the Cambridge University economist Joan Robinson famously quipped, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all."​​

The evidence presented by Heath and Mobarak show that even low wage sweatshop jobs can be transformative in communities which practised only subsistence farming not so long ago. The study highlights how manufacturing can disrupt traditional hierarchies and catalyze social change by igniting new aspirations and by introducing new benchmarks of success.

Other studies show that there are several indirect benefits reaped by the community when more women start working in mills and factories. Research on Mexico by Princeton University economist David Atkin shows that women working in manufacturing jobs have significantly taller children than their peers. Atkin suggests that women in manufacturing end up having greater bargaining power within the household and that leads to better decisions for their children.

A 2014 research paper by Anitha Sivasankaran of Harvard University shows that women working in manufacturing jobs in Tamil Nadu tend to marry later, findings that match those reported by Heath and Mobarak for Bangladesh. Sivansakaran also highlights additional benefits to workers and their families.

“A longer duration of employment also translates to reductions in desired fertility," writes Sivasankaran. “Further, there are strong spillover effects within the family, as age of marriage increases for younger sisters and school dropout rates decrease for younger brothers."

Sivasankaran, like Heath and Mobarak, identifies greater autonomy and bargaining power of women as the key change agents. Industrialization has often been seen as a dehumanising force that displaces communities and disrupts old social ties. Greater recognition of industrialization’s impact on reshaping gender relations can change the way we perceive factories and factory jobs.

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