By Joe Wallen, Dhaka
One of Bangladesh’s foremost female business leaders has vowed to transform job opportunities for women. Rubana Huq – managing director of one of the country’s largest conglomerates – became the first female president of Bangladesh’s national garment workers’ association earlier this month.
Despite fierce resistance to her appointment from men in the industry, the pioneering 55-year-old has revealed ambitious plans to tackle female empowerment in the workplace.
There are about 4,400 garment factories in Bangladesh, producing clothes for British high street retailers like Topshop, Primark and Marks & Spencer. The industry dominates the economy, generating $28.14 billion in 2016-2016 – a figure that represented a staggering 70 per cent the country’s entire export earnings.
However, only 150 of these factories are owned by women. Men typically hold the middle management and leadership positions while women – who make up 80 per cent of the workforce – work on the factory floors.
It is an imbalance that Huq is keen to address.
“I walked into one of our factories a couple of years ago and I asked why do I only see male supervisors, where are the female supervisors?” the association president told The Telegraph, in her first interview since her ground-breaking appointment earlier this month.
“They said, Madam, they don’t want to become supervisors because it’s a lot of responsibility. So, I went down to the factory floor and said how many of you want to be supervisors and nearly all of them raised their hands.”
It is an attitude Huq is all too familiar with, for her appointment as president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has been met with a “lot of opposition.”
“That a woman [will be] leading this sector is a hugely disturbing factor for many men in Bangladesh,” she said.
Opposition has not come from those who question whether she possesses the necessary experience; after all Huq is the managing director and chairman of the Mohammadi Group, which owns lingerie, sweater and woven garments factories all over Bangladesh and employs some four million people.
Instead, socially conservative and radical Islamic groups disapprove of women in Bangladesh being allowed to work at all, let alone occupy leadership roles.
“Whether the pressure is going to be worth taking, I don’t know, but I want to set a standard for women and tell them that anything is possible,” Huq said.
She has already established herself as the standard-bearer for improving working conditions for women in Bangladesh’s garment factories.
In 2014, she set up a ground-breaking two-year access course and undergraduate degree for women working in factories at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong. The first cohort will graduate in 2020 and enter into leadership roles in factories.
“When people ask me if I am excited about my presidency I’m actually not,” Huq said. “I’m more excited about watching the first garment workers graduate next year. For me, that is going to be some moment.”
The new president, elected by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in early April, now plans to introduce several other policies to transform employment opportunities for women in the garment industry.
Huq speaks to the largely female workforce inside one of Mohammadi Group’s garment factories
Huq speaks to the largely female workforce inside one of Mohammadi Group’s garment factories Credit: Susannah Savage/Tousif Farhad
Her experience with the Mohammadi Group led her to conclude that “every second house” in Bangladesh possesses a woman producing textiles.
Huq argued that these freelance designers are ultimately held back from expanding their businesses by a lack of capital.
“Our Central Bank has a rule that at least 10 per cent of credit has to be given to women but in reality it is something like two to three per cent,” she explained.
The president plans to introduce a National Credit Portal, so that entrepreneurial women can directly connect with banks to obtain necessary loans.
She will also introduce a female-to-female mentorship scheme in Bangladesh so the nation’s scarce but growing network of businesswomen can inspire and advise others.
While female employment rates have improved – from four per cent in 1974 to 33.9 per cent in 2015 – she admits the country still has a long way to go.
“The quest is to find a way to re-skill and upskill women and I don’t know whether it will be possible in such a short time, but I believe the journey must begin,” she said.
But as well as female empowerment, safety concerns are at the top of Huq’s agenda.
In 2013, when the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka collapsed killing more than 1,100 people, many of the dead were crushed as they worked in the building’s garment factories.
The horrifying incident shone a light on adverse working conditions in Bangladesh and as a result international firms with factories in the country agreed to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
In accordance with the Bangladeshi government, the agreement permitted regular independent inspections in factories and a range of safety upgrades for workers.
Accidents still occur, but they do so less frequently. According to a report by New York University’s Stern Centre, 71 workers died annually in Bangladeshi factories before the Rana Plaza incident. Since the Accord was signed, that figure has fallen to 17.
But the continued presence of Accord safety inspectors in Bangladesh is under threat. Representatives were due to leave the country in November 2018, but filed a petition to extend their presence. The Supreme Court will decide the outcome on May 19.
According to Huq, the Accord’s presence has been very positive, but she believes that the organisation should now make “a graceful exit from Bangladesh.”
Instead, the president intends to set up her own monitoring practices following a consultation with Accord representatives to understand remaining safety issues.
“They can then move on to other countries in the region like India or Pakistan,” she argued. “These places also have similar accidents but Bangladesh is always hogging the spotlight and I don’t think that is fair.”
Huq said the industry has worked hard to improve factory safety, under the terms of the Accord, but added that more can still be done.
“The Accord had around 1,900 factories under its jurisdiction, my point is what happens to the rest,” she said.
Huq added that there must be greater transparency inside the 745 factories currently under government control, as well as other small, shared facilities which fell outside the Accord’s authority.
She said an incident in one of these less visible factories could spook investors across the entire Bangladesh garment industry.
“If there are isolated cases we should be able to deal with them instead of someone picking that story up and turning it into a huge headline,” Huq said.
“That is not how we want to become a headline. I want to hit the headlines with a good story of how this sector is positively impacting women in Bangladesh.”