Making A Difference

A Stitch In Time

As unemployment rises, the garment industry holds out hope for rural women

A Stitch In Time
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For years, Bangladesh has been synonymous with jute. But in just over a decade, it has been supplanted by the garment industry and other non-traditional items like shrimp. And the new-wave entrepreneurship has come as a source of succour for the unemployment-plagued nation.

With the minimum sloganeering, it's effecting an economic emancipation of sorts for the female population, especially in rural Bangladesh. Thus, the biggest growth sector is also reshaping a society known for its hidebound ways.

A survey conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies has found that over 90 per cent of the 1.2 million workers employed in the garment sector are women. While the garment industry has provided a ray of hope to women, the fact is that the overall employment scenario in the country—for both male and female—remains bleak.

There are no official statistics on the jobless, although the number of educated unemployed is estimated at around 25 million. In a population of about 120 million, with a literacy rate of 34 per cent, the total unemployment figure is bound to be staggering. Or "really mind-boggling", as Minister of State for Planning Dr Abdul Moyeen Khan describes it.

A combination of factors has contributed to this dismal picture. In its 24 years, aseries of disasters—both natural and man-made—have stunted economic growth. Cyclones and floods have repeatedly scarred the country, and years of mismanagement, corruption, and chronic political instability have ruined existing industries. Take, for instance, traditional sectors like jute or tea,which not only provided jobs for a large segment of the population but earned precious foreign exchange. Jute once accounted for 80 per cent of the total export earnings. But last year, of the total export earning of $3.2 billion, the garment industry contributed over $2 billion. Even shrimp managed $600 million whereas jute exports yielded just $366.70 million.

The decrease in jute prices over the years, ascribed mainly to the falling global market and high cost of production, has forced the authorities to adopt some painful measures. Under a World Bank restructuring programme aimed at revitalising the sector, 20,000 of the 200,000 workers have to be laid off and nine of 66 jute mills have to be closed down in two years. Some 12,000 workers have already been sent home.

They are not the only casualties. The decline of jute has affected the livelihood of about 25 million people—rural growers, small traders and middlemen. The hard days are forcing them to take that inevitable step—move to the city in search of jobs which don't exist. Experts predict that this growing joblessness could exacerbate social tension. "We're aware of the magnitude of the problem, we're doing our best," says Khan. Resigned to a back-to-the-wall fight, he says there is no point in trying to emulate the SouthEast Asian tigers. "We've missed the bus," he says despondently. Instead, the government is focussing on creating and strengthening non-traditional growth sectors such as shrimp and garment and, on generating jobs in the rural areas, where over 80 per cent of the population lives.

Initially, the thrust will be on promoting medium and small-scale agro-based industries, and arranging small-scale credit to promote self-employment in fields such as poultry, cattle and fisheries. This will be primarily in line with the model supplied by the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, the two non-government organisations which have pioneered the small credit programme aimed at empowering the rural poor.

The planning minister says Bangladesh is also trying to expand its export of manpower, sending more people—both skilled and unskilled—overseas to ease unemployment at home and at the same time earn sorely-needed hard currency. Last year, remittance became the second largest earner, bringing in nearly $1 billion.

The country is also trying hard to woo foreign investment, especially from Japan and the South-East Asian countries, to spur economic growth. It has created a separate body offering a variety of incentives such as tax holidays, relaxed foreign exchange controls and repatriation of profits to the investor's home country.

But the key to any modicum of success, says Khan, largely depends on democracy. And that's a commodity which has perennially been in short supply in this region in the 48 years since Partition.

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