First News
Volume:7, Number:43
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COVER STORY
THIS WEEK

Catching Up With Men

| Khondoker Tazuddin |

Women in Bangladesh, like their cohorts in the rest of the world, are still suffering disproportionately from discrimination, particularly in labor practices

Breaking the web of taboos and social pressure, women are increasingly being engaged in the workforce in Bangladesh like other countries of the world. However, their plight is far from over, as they are being subjected to various types of exploitation such as longer working hours, unequal wages, and verbal and physical abuse in the workplace. Women in the informal sector are often paid less than men, for the same or similar work done.

Gender pay gap is a massive obstacle in the way of ensuring equal rights for women at work. While it is a worldwide phenomenon, the problem is very visible in Bangladesh. A study conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that a man’s hourly average income is about 21 percent higher than that of his female counterpart. The gap is wider and more visible in the informal sectors. While a preconceived notion about women was that they are incapable of strenuous, menial labor, they have proved all the assumptions wrong. Many women are working long hours at construction sites and factories. Despite proving their worth as hard workers, women are getting significantly lower wages compared to their male counterparts. While a male day laborer gets BDT400 per day, a female worker gets BDT300- 350 for the same amount and nature of work.

complain they are constantly being mistreated by their supervisors. Women working in the agriculture sector are yet to be recognized as farmers, despite being involved in every step of production and cultivation. Women construction workers are also regularly being subjected to wage disparity. Most women workers are deprived of maternity leave as well and many of them often end up losing their jobs for seeking maternity leave.

Overwhelming Discrimination

In Bangladesh the minimum wage of workers is below the mark as it is, but women workers end up getting an even shorter end of that bargain. According to 2015 data of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics BBS), the monthly wage of workers has increased by only BDT48 in the two previous years.

For the most part, only the male workers’ income increased slightly due to that raise, while the income of female workers remained unchanged. The male workers’ average monthly income increased from BDT11,493 in 2013 to BDT11,542 in 2015. No change has been seen in the average monthly salary/ wage of female workers during that time. Women in Bangladesh bear the major burden of work in and around households, but monetization of their work is a concept unheard of in our society. As a result, despite contributing significantly to the country’s GDP, they do not receive any wages or recognition in exchange. Currently, the combined number of male and female workers is 23.1 million. Of them, 7.3 million are working without any wages. In the last two years, 3.3 million unpaid workers got involved in the workforce. Most female workers, especially in the private sector, come from impoverished backgrounds. Many of them are the sole breadwinners of their families. Due to lack of education and resources, they are oblivious of their rights in the workplace. They are not informed about labor laws, neither do they have much idea about seeking legal aid.

Alongside, taking legal measures is somewhat risky for people from low income backgrounds. As a result, they are being oppressed by their employers. The oppression goes way beyond financial oppression; many women workers are physically harassed and sexually assaulted in the workplace. While existing laws offer protection to labor rights, they are not being implemented properly.

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Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament

We are trying to ensure gender equality in parliament. With the planned 50-50 target ahead of us, we are following IPU’s directives and taking necessary initiatives. Special proj - ects have been initiated to ensure poverty alleviation and economic empowerment of rural women. The government is working on closing the gender wage gap. Rural women are being trained in computer and information technology. We have a number of challenges ahead of us, including the gender wage gap. A number of schemes, including the widow allowance and maternity allowance, have been initiated to assist women at the grassroots level. To make women economically indep endent, income generating training must be provided. The government has introduced a national helpline for women. By dialing 10921, anyone can report assault on women and get assistance.

Plight of Women Workers

While working outside the home is no longer taboo for Bangladeshi women, it is still not perceived as an entirely respectable choice. Working women have to face unwarranted criticism and harsh comments from the family, neighborhood, and the larger society. Despite working hard for long hours, their performance and productivity are always questioned. Women in the informal sector are often paid less than men for the same work.

Sometimes, they get half of what their male counterparts get. The largest male-female wage gaps were found in the construction industry. While male workers take 1-1.5 hour breaks from their daily work, female workers do not get any free time except for a short lunch break. Many female workers have to take care of their infant children during work. Despite working overtime, female workers are not getting paid proportionately. If they try to protest the discrimination, employers/ supervisors often fire them on the spot. The gender wage gap is very visible in the brick fields, the RMG sector, agricultural work, and so on. A joint research paper titled ““Economic Justice for Women” by World Vision Bangladesh and Steps Towards Development” found that women workers are still paid less than men in the agriculture and construction sectors of the country. According to the study conducted on 68 female and 51 male laborers, 32 percent of female respondents get less than BDT100 a day, while the percentage of male respondents earning the same wages is only 6. It also showed that 56 percent of male workers get BDT200-400 daily, whereas only 7 percent of women workers get the same amount in similar jobs.

Dr. Anu Mohammad, professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University said, “Since women’s labor is cheap, many employers prefer them over men. As a result, women’s participation in every kind of informal work is significantly high. The absence of a government approved minimum wage for informal labor sectors like agriculture and construction is further fueling gender-based wage discrimination. Without proper supervision and implementation of the law, disparity between male and female workers will not decrease.” According to the organization OXFAM, the number of women workers in Bangladesh has increased by over 5 million in the last decade, and 77 percent of these workers are rural women. Unfortunately, they are facing the greatest discrimination in the workplace. Most women workers have to take care of their households and work long hours at their workplaces simultaneously. So, they have to work in factories that are close to their homes. As women’s labor is cheap and easily replaced, most female workers live in constant fear of losing their jobs. As a result, they keep silent about low wages and other discrimination.

A number of female construction workers told this reporter that even though they work longer hours than their male coworkers, they get BDT50- 100 less than men. If they complain to managers or persons in charge, they are threatened with losing their jobs. Even though many women are actively involved in the agricultural sector, 73 pecent of those women contribute what is considered as unpaid ‘family labor’ and do not receive a salary. While the Agriculture Extension Department has an organized database for male agricultural workers and farmers, there is no such documentation for female workers. Leaders of working women’s associations have demanded appointment of a labor commission to establish agricultural labor laws. As per their estimate, women are participating in 17 out of 20 activities in the agriculture sector. However, they do notget any organizational recognition, nor any monetary value for their work. As a result, they do not get any government incentives or other facilities.

The number of domestic workers in the country between the ages of 5 and 17 stands at 2 million, and 83 percent of these workers are female. Half of them do not get a salary for months, while some do not get any salary at all. Many domestic workers end up working 10-12 hours a day in exchange for very little money. The wage gap is prevalent in this line of work as well. While a live-in female domestic worker gets an average of BDT2,000 per month, a male caretaker gets at least BDT5,000. Despite a high court order about not appointing children younger than 12 as domestic workers, domestic workers are not entitled to any legal rights in Bangladesh. They are completely excluded from the country’s only labor related law, namely the Labor Act 2006, under Section 1(4). This means that they can neither go to labor courts in case of injustice at work, nor can they form trade unions to represent their interests.

As such, employers are not accountable for the way they treat their helping hands. Domestic workers receive pitiful wages, work and (in the case of live-in workers) live in dire conditions, and are frequently subjected to physical, mental, verbal, and, sometimes, sexual abuse. In recent years, violence against domestic workers has reached an alarming state. Incidents of brutal physical torture, rape, and even murder, have become more frequent than ever.

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Meher Afroz Chumki State minister for Women and Children Affairs Ministry

Working class people are always oppressed, and the women of this class have to endure the worst of it. Working class people do not have any social status, job security, or any security in general. Professionals get promotions and allowances, but the laborers’ income remains the same. The government has fixed a minimum wage in order to assist these people. Although the labor law offers equal salary to men and women, employers often violate the law. There’s no way to deny that women are facing discrimination in the workplace. Some endure mental and sexual harassment. The government is trying its best to ensure a safe work environment for female workers. The culprits are being brought to justice.

Ahead in Education, Not in Jobs

Bangladesh has achieved enviable success when it comes to ensuring primary education for children regardless of their gender. This positive development has occurred due to some specific government initiatives focusing on girl students, such as stipends and exemption of tuition fees for girls in rural areas, and the stipend scheme for girls at the secondary level.

Bangladesh has made significant progress in promoting the objectives of ensuring gender equality and empowerment of women. Following the initiation of stipends and other financial incentives, the number of female students increased significantly in the secondary and higher secondary levels of education as well. These girls are doing well in public examinations, and are often doing better in higher education than their male cohorts. However, their participation and progress in the workforce is still unsatisfactory. According to statistics, over 36.1 million women, despite being educated and skilled, are not included in the workforce. Many working women can never reach leadership positions not for any lack of skill, but because they have to juggle their household responsibilities along with work responsibilities. In Bangladesh, women are expected to perform all the household chores singlehandedly. Even when both husband and wife are working professionals, it is up to the women to pick up the household chores right after returning home from office. The pressure gets so intense that many women either quit their jobs, or switch to low paying and less challenging jobs. Over 8.6 million women are giving their labor in families without getting any salary. Women are facing social and financial constraints even when they try to become entrepreneurs.

Monowara Hakim Ali, the former first vice president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FBCCI), observed, “While women are doing well in education, they have to put family first. As a result, they cannot pursue professions of their choice.”

A number of steps have been taken to encourage women’s participation in the workforce. The banks have been given directives to give loans to women entrepreneurs. Along with the SME Foundation, various NGOs and business chambers are trying to facilitate women's empowerment. If these initiatives become successful, women’s contribution to the country’s economy will increase significantly. The Millennium Development Goals Progress Report has found that significant progress has been made in increasing equitable access to education, reduction of dropouts, improvement in completion of the education cycle, and implementation of a number of quality enhancement measures in primary education. Bangladesh has already achieved gender parity in primary and secondary enrolments. Currently the national enrolment rate of female students (between the ages of 15 to 24) is 76.6 percent, and that of male students is 74 percent. As per that estimate, the number of female enrolment rate is 2.6 percent higher than that of male students. The report also found that while the national enrolment rate for primary students was supposed to be 100 percent within 2015, it now stands at 97.7 percent. Currently, the enrollment rate of female students at the primary level is 98.8 percent and that of males is 96.6 percent.

The report said the gender gap in primary education was quite wide in 1990, with 69.4 percent male students and 50.8 percent female. By 2000, the number of female students exceeded the number of male students. In 2005, female student enrolment exceeded 90 percent, but male students dropped to 84.4 percent. From then on, the number of female students has been increasing at every level of education. The Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information & Statistics (BANBEIS) sources said, average percentage of female students at the secondary level stood at 51.18 percent, meaning girl students have slightly outnumbered their male peers. Female students also did better than their male counterparts in the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) and equivalent examinations in 2016. A total of 710,808 female students passed the examinations with an 88.39 percent success rate, while the number of successful male students was 741,797 with an 88.20 percent pass rate. A total of 1 9,552,979 students are studying at 108,537 primary schools. Of them, 9,913,884 are girl students and 9,639,095 are male students, the BANBEIS sources added. Despite increasing participation and success in education, women’s participation in the workforce is still below the mark. According to the latest labor force survey by BBS, currently 18.2 million women are involved in the country’s job market, compared to the 42.5 million male counterparts. About 36.1 million women and 9.6 million men are not in the workforce despite having the abilities and skills for employment. Nearly 41.2 million men of the workforce are employed, while that number for women is only 16.8 million.

The unemployment rate is 3 percent among men in the labor force and it is 7 percent among women. A significant number of women are involved in family businesses and that also without any payment. According to the survey, 8.4 million women and 2.1 million men are currently working without any wages. As a result, their contributions are not being recognized in the country’s economic development indicators. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) said that women’s participation in the labor force is dropping significantly in the Asia-Pacific countries. Social and cultural reforms can bring these women into the mainstream economy. The report also said that a financially secure woman is wellaware of her rights in her family and society. Her influence can benefit the next generation, and she can contribute to providing a better future for her children. If women’s presence and influence in business, administration, and politics increase, they will be able to voice their opinions about social and family reforms at national and international levels.

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Roy Ramesh Chandra Former secretary general of Jatiya Sramik League

Any form of discrimination cannot bring anything good for a country. Only with equal participation of men and women in the workforce can we hope for sustainable development. We have to change our attitude towards women and give them the respect they deserve. With proper respect and support, women will play an active role in the development of our society. Discrimination does not exist in society; it exists in the hearts of people. We are not aware of our duties and responsibilities. Equal rights is human rights for everyone. There is no need to differentiate between men and women. What we have nowadays in the name of women’s rights is doing more harm than good. Vested interest groups are using this issue as a means to gain the support of women to serve their own interests.

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Anu Muhammad Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University

the informal sectors. As women’s labor is considered to be cheap, owners readily employ them. In the absence of any national minimum wage structure, these women workers are being thoroughly exploited. If this issue is not treated with more seriousness, the gender discrimination problem in our country will never go away. Women have proved their worth in every sector of society. For the overall socioeconomic development of a country like Bangladesh, women’s contribution is undisputed. They make up half the country’s population as well. So women should have equal participation and access to education and employment facilities.

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