Workers sort clothes at a garment factory near the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh June 16, 2013. Picture: REUTERS / ANDREW BIRAJ
Workers sort clothes at a garment factory near the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh June 16, 2013. Picture: REUTERS / ANDREW BIRAJ

Chennai — The first woman to head one of Bangladesh’s biggest garment associations said on Tuesday she would boost female leadership as most factory workers were women. 

Rubana Huq is MD of Mohammadi Group, which owns a string of factories supplying brands such as H&M and Primark in Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment exporter, employing 4-million people.

“I believe that in an industry where more than 80% of the workers are women, they should be given a greater chance to voice their interests,” said Huq, new president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

“Today, the workforce is largely women but people in the managerial levels are mostly men. That needs to change.”

In Bangladesh’s 4,500 factories, women have traditionally had to negotiate with male managers on pay, workplace safety and respect on the job. Huq wants to change this.

Her election comes at a time as Bangladesh’s Supreme Court considers whether to shut down a factory-inspection mechanism set up by European fashion labels after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in 2013, killing 1,100 people.

Huq said that manufacturers needed to strengthen their own monitoring mechanisms to help the government take over from the Bangladesh Accord — signed by about 200 major brands.

The textile magnate, who was elected unopposed, said her decision to represent manufacturers and exporters was a natural extension of her two-decade career in the industry, where she is one of a handful of senior female executives.

“As a woman there is always a hiccup and always a mindset to change,” she said from Dhaka.

“But I’m here now and, being a woman, I believe my attitude towards the challenges faced by women workers will be different and more empathetic.”

Huq said she planned to educate women workers to secure their future and step up to mid-managerial levels in factories.

“I would like to have a gender-based leadership programme that ensures more women are empowered to take on these roles,” said Huq, who is also an award-winning poet and columnist.

She said industry abuses were “isolated, negative practices”. “The fact that 80% of our women are freely working and contributing to the economy is a much bigger narrative.”

Labour rights campaigners said that while Huq had broken through the glass ceiling for women, her loyalties  as head of Mohammadi Group were more to businesses than workers.

“Her election is good, but I am not sure how much impact she will have in an organisation that is still dominated by men,” said Nazma Akter, a former child worker and founder of Awaj Foundation, which campaigns for labour rights.

“I wish she would look at issues of living wages, health of workers, maternity benefits and violence in factories.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation