The readymade garments export sector has been an important source of growth and pro-poor labour market expansion in the economic development of both Bangladesh and Vietnam since the 1980s. In both, the sector has employed millions of women, comprising up to 80 per cent of the garments industry labour force in each country at different times. At present, over two million Bangladeshi women work in the garments sector (61 per cent of the total), and some three million in Vietnam (an estimated 80 per cent of the total). The fact that this workforce in both is predominantly female means that what happens to workers in the garments industries in both countries means that labour conditions in global export manufacturing are a core concern for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
In the past decade, Bangladesh and Vietnam have experienced strong external pressures to improve the labour standards of its predominantly female workforce. Early evidence suggests that the outcomes of these pressures have diverged in the different countries. In Vietnam, the Communist Party is relinquishing control to labour organisations, at provincial and national levels. By contrast, in Bangladesh, regardless of the political regime, organized labour has been violently but ineffectively suppressed.
How can these differences be explained?
This research proposed that the solutions to this puzzle may be sought in the political economy of the garments sector in each country, and specifically in the ‘holding power’ of garments employers compared to that of workers within the ruling coalition. This research sought to investigate the proposal that to a greater extent in Bangladesh than in Vietnam, individual members of the political elite are more likely to be directly involved in or benefit from the garments industry; they are also more likely to be powerful economic actors in their own right, and to have individual and collective political influence. It sought to explore the drivers of change in these two settings.
The research methods employed involved a substantial amount of secondary and official documentary review, as well as news content analysis and comparative analysis of the sectors in the two countries to help explain the relative political power of actors in each sector/country. In addition, it undertook qualitative research in Vietnam and Bangladesh, through semi-structured interviews with selected trades unionists, NGO and worker rights organizations, key civil servants, employers, trade negotiators and cooperating partners, intending to answer the 4 following broad research themes:
- What are the differences in how garments employers and workers are incorporated within the political settlement or ruling coalition in Bangladesh and Vietnam?
- How have transnational pressures in the wake of Rana Plaza and the TPP negotiations shaped the space for worker mobilization?
- To what extent have transnational pressures in the wake of Rana Plaza and the TPP negotiations influenced negotiations over the minimum wage?
- How and to what extent have ideologies of gender and gender relations influenced garments workers’ position within the political settlement, and in relation to transnational pressures to raise labour standards?