“Where is Dhaka?” : Reflections on exploitation in the Bangladeshi Garment Industry

Group of women working in a garment factory

Group of women working in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh 


Mohammed Sakib Wasif, MSc (Health Information Science) Candidate, Western University

Over the past decade, my home city of Dhaka, Bangladesh has seen a surge in economic growth within the garment industry by providing over 1.5 million employment opportunities for women (Absar, 2001). Although this may be seen as a sign of the city’s prosperity, beneath this growth lie exploitative conditions of women providing the labor to the garment industry.

Critiques of the Bangladeshi garment industry’s practices have been widely critiqued as linked to politics. In these arguments, the exploitation of women labor is orchestrated by a corrupt government body lacking oversight on fundamental labour laws and institution of low salaries since the 1980’s (Absar, 2001). Money and resources are instead used for retaining international buyers through low-cost production incentives to increase profit margins (Kabir et al., 2022). This political practice is also facilitated by while reproducing economic barriers limiting employment options in factory zones, where women engaging in the garment industry are provided less educational and career opportunities than men (Absar, 2001; Amin et al., 1998). Patriarchal norms that men should fulfill their breadwinner role within the household (Absar, 2001) have historically and continue to this day to normalize more money and resources being invested by families in men’s education and careers, as opposed to those of women. When women do need to earn wages, whether due to their own or their families’ immediate needs, options are limited when education is low. A qualitative study conducted by Kabir and colleagues (2022) indicated that out of 15 female participants interviewed in the sector, 7 of them had primary school levels of education while only 5 of them were able to write their own signatures. Education and early childhood development is an SDOH where women in the industry are disproportionately affected.

Structural violence does not only produce uneven economic opportunities. As we know from the social determinants of health, where populations face economic hardship and enter higher risk jobs, this has short and long-term impacts on health. In the case of Bangladesh garment workers, employment in the industry escalates many secondary health disparities including chronic long-term disabilities from extended shift hours along with mental and physical distress from management/employers (Absar 2001; Kabir et al., 2022). Low wages combined with limited social protections by the state or the employer leaves women in the garment industry exposed to unsanitary working conditions, lack of benefits, and even unpaid sick leave causing physical and emotional distress (Amin et al., 1998). The same study cited earlier by Kabir and colleagues indicated many of the 15 women lived paycheck to paycheck and were unable to create any savings from their income working in garment factories (Kabir et al., 2022; Amin et al., 1998). Finally, this factors into the SDOH for basic housing amenities as many garment factories operate within densely populated areas and even slums (Kabir et al., 2022; Amin et al., 1998). As a result, many women find themselves being unable to afford sanitary products, groceries or even the funds to afford housing in Dhaka (Kabir et al., 2022).

As a first-generation immigrant myself, it is quite upsetting to hear stories of the current state of labor within my home city where even house workers being recruited within large families are paid less than the Canadian dollar for a full day of work. However, I have also heard success stories of women being able to escape these industries and pursue higher levels of education (such as a family friend who was able escape the industry to attain her PhD in Theoretical Physics). It is evident that these circumstances do not just simply reflect the garment industry, but many other sectors due to lack of reform that is urgently needed. For the city to experience true prosperity in the future, social pressure to implement fundamental labor regulations for workers, along with small-scale proximal interventions through medical practitioners should encourage workers to speak about these issues much more frequently.



Absar, S.S. (2001). Problems surrounding wages: The ready-made garments sector in Bangladesh. (2001) Asia Pacific Press, 2(7). Retrieved from: https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/41832/4/2-7-ssharmin.pdf

Amin, S., Diamond, I., Naved, R. T., & Newby, M. (1998). Transition to Adulthood of Female Garment-Factory Workers in Bangladesh. Studies in Family Planning, 29(2), 185–200. https://doi.org/10.2307/172158

Kabir, H., Maple, M., Islam, M. (2022). The Paradoxical Impacts of the Minimum Wage Implementation on Ready-made Garment (RMG) Workers: A Qualitative Study. Indian Journal of Labour Economics 65(1), 545–569. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41027-022-00375-9


Photo Credit Munir Uz Zaman