Home-Based Workers in the Export Garment Sector in Bangladesh: An Exploratory Study in Dhaka City

Home‐based garment workers (HBGWs) are at the bottom of the ready-made garments (RMG) sector of Bangladesh. They supply labour to garment factories, usually through agents and contractors. This informal and home-based nature of employment attracts a large number of “cheap” female labour. Not much is known about the situation of these HBGWs, and they continue to remain invisible in the labour market. In this study, the researchers tried to analyse the situation of these home-based workers producing garments for the export-oriented RMGs. Information was collected from various actors involved in this sector on the conditions of employment, livelihoods of the workers, and issues around their lack of organisation.

Researchers: Simeen Mahmud; Lopita Huq

Timeline: 2014

Status: Completed

Contact: Lopita Huq;



Many export-oriented garments in Bangladesh often hire, through agents and sub-contractors, home-based workers (HBWs) to work for them on a piece-rate basis. The majority of these workers are married women with children; are usually low-skilled, have few labour market choices, and have little bargaining power. For them, this work has a low opportunity cost as it can be combined with their household and care responsibilities. Moreover, since it does not require breaking the cultural norms, home-based work holds much appeal to women from conservative families and communities. Women’s home-based work is usually seen as an extension of their domestic work. As a result, their work in Bangladesh is invisible, both socially and from a policy perspective. It is highly under‐represented in official labour statistics and excluded from the existing labour laws. Given the lack of statistics, the magnitude of this branch of the labour force is hard to assess. There is almost no reliable information on the size of this workforce or the conditions of their work and livelihoods.


The objective of the study was to undertake a situation analysis of home-based workers in the export garment sector as the first step towards systematic documentation of this phenomenon.

This study is relevant to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), particularly to achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls


This research was based on 27 qualitative case studies of HBGWs in four areas of Dhaka (and its surrounding areas). Using the life history method, the study applied semi‐structured questionnaires with a focus on work history. In addition, in‐depth interviews with relevant individuals and institutions—agents, non-government organisation (NGO) staff, trade union staff, a trainer, and a merchandiser—were conducted.

Findings and Recommendations

HBGWs in Bangladesh do not have any direct contact with the factories from which the work is outsourced. Hence, they do not have a clear, formal relationship with the factories; rather they have an informal, personalised relationship with the intermediaries. Since the volume of the available home‐based work is limited compared to the number of women who seek such work, they are in a relatively weak bargaining position. The demand for coordination and organisation is not yet evident among the HBGWs. But the potential for change, in terms of awareness of their rights and their value as workers, is apparent among the women who received the Occupational Safety, Health and Environment (OSHE) training and those who participated in trade union-mobilised activities. Several other organisations have also started working with HBWs. However, the invisibility of HBGWs prevents them from organising systematically. The contribution of HBGWs to their families and to the country’s economy, therefore, continues to remain unrecognised and unappreciated.

Due to the nature of their work, HBGWs in Bangladesh fall within a definitional grey area and remain a particularly vulnerable part of the workforce. They need to be identified as workers in official statistics not only for recognition but also for protection under the labour law.