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HomeNews & ViewsIndustry FocusCounting threads: Confusion Clouds Bangladesh Garment Industry Worker Statistics

Counting threads: Confusion Clouds Bangladesh Garment Industry Worker Statistics

A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the exact number of workers employed in Bangladesh’s garment industry, the undisputed champion of the country’s export earnings. This week, the Minister of State for Labor ignited a debate in the National Parliament by casting doubt on the previously accepted figures. Industry insiders and researchers are taking strong issue with the minister’s claims, highlighting discrepancies in the reported data.

A decade ago, garment factory owners touted figures between 4 and 4.2 million workers employed in the sector. However, current employment numbers remain shrouded in secrecy. This shift in transparency likely stems from factory closures following the Rana Plaza disaster and significant worker layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many never returning to their jobs. Adding to the confusion, State Minister for Labor and Employment Nazrul Islam Chowdhury threw a new number into the mix last Sunday. He informed the National Parliament that Bangladesh’s garment industry currently employs 5,017,652 workers, a figure provided in response to a question from a ruling party MP.

However, the leaders of BGMEA and BKMEA, two organizations of garment industry owners, said that there are no such numbers of workers in the export-oriented garment sector. They say, as old factories are closed, new factories are also opened. However, despite the increase in factories, the number of workers is not increasing much due to the use of modern machinery.

In the National Assembly, the State Minister for Labor and Employment shed light on garment industry worker statistics. BGMEA’s biometric database indicates 3,317,397 workers in ready-made garment factories, with women comprising 52.28% (or 1,734,459 workers). The Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) data suggests 1,725,550 workers in the knitwear sector, with women constituting 62% (or 1,054,157 workers). Combining these figures, the national garment industry employs 5,017,652 workers. However, the State Minister acknowledged a discrepancy, noting the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ 2022 labor force survey reports a total garment industry workforce of 4,316,000.

SM Mannan, president of BGMEA, addressed the seemingly contradictory trends of rising factories and stagnant worker numbers. He attributed this to automation, explaining that  fewer workers are needed now as one person can operate a machine previously requiring two. Mohammad Hatem, BKMEA’s Executive President, acknowledged a decline in worker numbers from a previous database figure of 1.7 million to a more realistic estimate of 1.3 million currently. He linked this decrease to reduced production capacity (operating at 60–70%) and ongoing worker departures without new recruitment to fill those positions. Hatem emphasized the need for a more accurate count of workers in the export-oriented garment sector.

Further inquiry revealed a potential source of data duplication. Many companies belong to both BGMEA and BKMEA, causing their worker data to be counted twice in each organization’s database. This “double counting” makes it challenging to pinpoint the exact number of garment industry workers. Additionally, there are garment exporters who aren’t members of either BGMEA or BKMEA.

When questioned, BGMEA president SM Mannan firmly stated that the number of workers in the export-oriented garment sector is unlikely to surpass 4 million. Citing database and insurance information, he claimed BGMEA member factories employ around 3.2 million workers. He further elaborated, “While the number of factories is increasing, the worker count isn’t rising significantly. Previously, two workers operated a sewing machine. Now, automation allows one person to handle a machine. Even though exports have grown,” he implied that automation might be a factor keeping worker numbers steady.

A project named “Mapped in Bangladesh” (MIB) to digitally map export-oriented garment factories has been undertaken by BRAC University’s Center for Entrepreneurship Development (CED). This project operates under BRAC’s leadership, with BGMEA and BKMEA serving as strategic partners.28 lakh 91 thousand workers work in 3,678 garment factories, according to MIB data. 42.9 percent are men, and the rest are women among them. Among the factories, 1,779 are members of BGMEA and 543 are members of BKMEA. 278 factories are common members of both BGMEA and BKMEA. There are 1,078 factories that are not members of either of these two organizations. An official of the MIB project said that the factories regularly update the information. Apart from that, data is collected by visiting every two years. Inspection is currently underway.

“The minister needs to be more careful in giving information, we think. On the other hand, those who have provided information also need to be careful. Confusion could have been avoided if acceptable information had been provided,” said Khandaker Ghulam Moazzem, Director of Research, CPD. There’s a healthy debate brewing in Bangladesh regarding garment industry worker statistics. Lawmakers are actively seeking information, and the Labor Minister recently shared figures from BGMEA and BKMEA, industry associations. However, concerns have been raised about the data’s accuracy. A key issue is potential duplication. BGMEA and BKMEA memberships overlap, so some workers might be counted twice. Additionally, these figures exclude non-member garment exporters. CPD, a private research institute, emphasizes the need for careful data collection and verification.

Transparency is crucial. CPD suggests the Labor Minister and industry associations double-check their sources, particularly considering the “Mapped in Bangladesh” project (MIB), a collaborative effort between BRAC University, BGMEA, and BKMEA, reports a lower figure of 2.89 million workers across 3,678 factories. This discrepancy highlights the need for a unified and reliable data collection system for the garment industry.


Author: Md Rakibul Islam, CA BUTEX

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