Revisiting the Feminist Debates on International Labor Standards in the Aftermath of Rana Plaza


This paper revisits the turn of the millennium feminist debates on international labor standards in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse of 2013 that killed over 1100 garment workers in Bangladesh. Feminists were divided over the benefits of establishing internationally enforced labor standards and, more generally, on the usefulness of transnational activism and union organizing for garment workers. The arguments of some feminist opponents during and in the aftermath of the debate emphasized the relative advantages of garment jobs, dismissed the importance of union rights, and criticized the labor transnationalism. These arguments have left unchallenged the current regulatory regime in Bangladesh by allaying concerns about poor working conditions. Drawing upon new empirical evidence, the paper shows that export growth under the market regulatory regime has failed to improve labor conditions in the sector. The paper makes the case for the continuing relevance of feminist arguments that favor a more proactive stance to make job growth compatible with wage gains and improved labor conditions. As they argued, the scope of the response has to be international, including solidaristic activism supporting local worker organizations, and the use of wage increases to move Bangladesh on a development path toward a higher-productivity, higher-wage economy.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The prediction was that greater competition among companies and countries will help wipe out discriminatory wages—those earned by men relative to women when both groups have the same set of skills (Bhagwati 2004).

  2. 2.

    Sachs posits the working condition problems in the garment sector of Bangladesh as temporary, expecting that it too would follow the examples of the USA and Europe as it climbs the development ladder. However, improvement in wages and working conditions is neither automatic nor a guaranteed outcome of unregulated markets.

  3. 3.

    In Mexico, Central America, India, and Mauritius, EPZ pay is not necessarily higher than earnings in alternative jobs for women, including self-employment (Razavi 1999; Fussell 2000; Otobe 2008; Domínguez et al. 2010).

  4. 4.

    Kabeer and Mahmud report that in 2001, 72% of non-EPZ workers worked more than 10 h/day, while only 8% of other wageworkers (and 30% of EPZ workers) had such long working days.

  5. 5.

    The focus group was part of a UNDP project. The meeting was held at night with 11 garment workers from the same neighborhood. The 3-h discussion in the single-room dwelling was facilitated by a female Bangladeshi university student, who served as a translator.

  6. 6.

    These problems are endemic in garment sectors of many low-income countries.

  7. 7.

    See Pun Ngai (2007) for how low wage rates create the incentive for workers to do overtime.

  8. 8.

    I am grateful to Nilüfer Çağatay for raising this point.

  9. 9.

    The living wage estimates are based on market research conducted by the WRC in the Dominican Republic in 2010. The study estimated the cost of a basket of goods typically consumed by a free-trade zone factory worker, who lives near the factory with an adult earner and supports two children in addition to herself. For details on the estimation methodology, see WRC (2013, pp. 13–16).

  10. 10.

    BGMEA’s goal of maintaining wages low was also clear when in July 2006, its representative expressed optimism to the author that Bangladesh will benefit from an expansion of low-wage jobs once China moves to higher-quality, higher-wage production (personal communication).

  11. 11.

    As Kristof (2009) puts it, “the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.” For families who work “in the dump… a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty.”

  12. 12.

    Author’s calculations based on OTEXA, obtained by dividing the monetary value of imports by the import volume (in squared meters) and deflating by the US Consumer Price Index, downloaded from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.

  13. 13.

    As of December 2015, among the top 20 apparel-exporting middle- and low-income countries, Sri Lanka had the lowest monthly minimum wage (66 USD), followed by Bangladesh (68 USD) (Cowgill et al. 2015). The lowest legal minimums in Bangladesh’s main competitors were $155 in China, $100 in Vietnam, $128 in Cambodia, and $92 in Indonesia. After Sri Lanka raised its minimum wage in January 2016, Bangladesh once again has the lowest minimum wage (Emerging Textiles 2016).

  14. 14.

    The top 20 countries accounted for between 83 and 95% of US apparel imports between 1989 and 2010.

  15. 15.

    The CIRI Human Rights dataset is available for the 1981–2011 period, while the unit price data for US garment imports by country are available since 1989.

  16. 16.

    The monthly legal minimum wage in Bangladesh rose from 930 Tk = 16 USD in 1994 to 1662 Tk = 24 USD in 2006 and from 3000 Tk = 43 USD in 2010 to 5300 Tk = 68 USD in 2013.

  17. 17.

    Among 15 major apparel exporters to the USA, Bangladesh had the lowest monthly real wages in both 2001 and 2011 and the lowest prevailing wage as percentage of living wage in both years.

  18. 18.

    Gender gap in noncompliance with minimum wage is widespread in other Asian garment producer countries (Cowgill and Huynh 2016). The largest gender gap (60.5 percentage points) was for Pakistan, where 87% of women and 26.5% of men were paid below the minimum wage, and Cambodia had the smallest gap of 4.4 percentage points. The sample size for Bangladesh was too small for Cowgill and Huynh (2016) to report the noncompliance information.


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I am grateful to Erin Beck, Alice Evans, Jane Jacquette, and the two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments. I thank Erin Beck for her unwavering encouragement. Any remaining errors or shortcomings are mine.

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Correspondence to Günseli Berik.

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Berik, G. Revisiting the Feminist Debates on International Labor Standards in the Aftermath of Rana Plaza. St Comp Int Dev 52, 193–216 (2017).

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  • International labor standards
  • Women’s work
  • Export manufacturing
  • Bangladesh