Transforming trade with women working informally in Southern Bangladesh

Portrait of Lata Rani das . Debidas pur, Moniramour, Jessore, Bangladesh. Photo credit: GMB Akash/Traidcraft Exchange

Portrait of Lata Rani das . Debidas pur, Moniramour, Jessore, Bangladesh. Photo credit: GMB Akash/Traidcraft Exchange

George Williams talks us through Traidcraft Exchange’s work with some of the most marginalised women in the world

Throughout much of Bangladesh’s recent history, jute, known locally as the ‘golden fibre’, has been the mainstay of the country’s economy. Whilst its overall importance in terms of export earnings has since been eclipsed by the country’s readymade garments industry, nonetheless the jute sector provides employment and incomes to millions of poor rural producers and workers. Traidcraft Exchange has worked both with farmers growing jute and with SMEs that use jute cloth and thread to create various craft items. However, our work at both ends of the value chain led us to identify a previously hidden tier of processing that involves soaking harvested jute in water, then stripping the fibres from the stalk. This processing takes place in rural areas and chiefly employs women. It is extremely poorly paid as well as hazardous: women stand for many hours in stagnant polluted water and as such are prone to water-borne diseases, sores and infections. Previous blogs have described our work with the women workers in this industry: here and here

The first phase of the work has now finished and the independent final evaluation indicates that achievements have surpassed expectations. It’s a large and multi-faceted project, so we won’t go into all the details here, but there is one core element that stands out. The evaluators note that:

With the newly gained life-skills and through a collective group voice, women have negotiated with their employers and have been able to increase their wage more than 30% than the baseline value

More specifically, 100% of the 4320 women participating directly in the programme have benefited from a 30% increase in their daily wage rate. In addition, women have been able to demand improved working conditions, for example shaded areas under which to work, as well as the right to take home the jute sticks in addition to their pay. These can be used as fuel, for fencing and for making kitchen utensils which can be used or sold.

The increase in pay alone is a significant achievement. As mentioned, this is a previously invisible stage in the value chain, the workers constitute part of the informal economy and as such do not benefit from any of the protections experienced by workers in the formal sector, and lastly but crucially, they are women employed by men in a rural context where women’s rights are highly restricted. So how did this change come about?

As is the case across much of Traidcraft Exchange’s programme work, the foundation of the approach is the formation of well-run, democratically-governed and business-orientated producer institutions. Initially, and at the village level, these take the form of women’s groups or ‘societies’ which bring together 25 to 30 women members, elect a leadership committee every two years and provide collective identity, voice and solidarity. Once these are running well, sub-district (Upazila) and then district (Zila) associations are formed. Leadership committees are drawn from the groups/societies that form their membership. This tripartite structure is supported by our programme and partner staff with training and mentoring on business and entrepreneurial skills, negotiation and advocacy skills and institution management and governance. This support enabled the producer institutions in southern Bangladesh to initiate various forums at the local level, including with their members’ employers. In these meetings a combination of negotiation strategies were deployed to demand the rights of women workers. These varied from emphasising the shared humanity of all people and the strong bonds of community that exist within rural society – asserting that the women workers are like the nieces, daughters and sisters of their employers – to threatening strike action, and in some cases following through on this threat.

An independent review of the approach commissioned in 2018 included interviews with some of the women’s employers and found some evidence of a change in attitude, neatly captured in the following quotation:

Before I used them [the women workers] and didn’t give them anything and now the women are becoming aware of their rights. I realise I need them and can’t afford to lose them so I give them what they want.

However, in addition to the strengthening of social capital and collective voice and power of women workers through institution building, the programme worked closely with local stakeholders to enable women to diversify their income sources and thereby strengthen a point of leverage with their employers. The programme facilitated links between local government extension departments and the newly formed women’s institutions to extend training and support on alternative livelihood options. As a result, for example, some women became para-vets, offering low-cost but profitable poultry vaccination services to fellow villagers. Others became soil testers, collecting soil samples from neighbours, delivering them to the government lab, then returning the results and explaining the accompanying recommendations to their clients. Others became organic compost producers selling high-quality organic compost to other villagers who had themselves been trained on the benefits of compost application for soil fertility, water retention and ultimately crop yields. Others became tailors producing garments to sell in local markets. After four years the evaluators found that 100% of the participating 4320 women had at least three additional sources of income, and 90% had increased their income level by at least 50% through these other sources.

Livelihood-strengthening projects are commonplace across much of the global south, but that is not to denigrate the approach. I suspect that part of the reason for the extensive uptake of the approach is its effectiveness. However, what is important about Traidcraft Exchange’s use of the approach in this example is its integration into a wider programme which aimed to strengthen the power of informal women workers within a specific value chain, enabling them to demand better wages and improved working conditions. This is similar to our approach with Kenya tea growers which has been documented here. In short for Traidcraft Exchange, the approach is not only about diversifying and increasing incomes, but about empowering invisible workers and rebalancing power in supply chains.

Traidcraft Exchange’s current five year strategy is called ‘Transforming Trade’: the work with women workers in the jute sector in Southern Bangladesh provides one of our strongest examples to date of how trade can be transformed to benefit vulnerable workers even within highly unequal and unregulated informal sectors. This is probably most vividly explained by the women we’ve worked with themselves; some quotations:

“Nobody cared about what a helpless woman like me can say. I also didn’t have the courage to speak up. But now as a group, our voice matters.”  Group Vice-President Monirampur.

“We worked the same hours as men did, got our hands dirty and bruised in the field, but received much smaller payment than what men received. But now collectively we have negotiated with the traders and increased our wage significantly.”  Group member, Gobindapur.

George Williams is Traidcraft Exchange’s Impact and Learning Manager

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Tom Sharman