Livelihood Transitions and Coping with Shocks: Women in the RMG Sector Coping with COVID-19

Women make up the majority of workers in the readymade garments sector of Bangladesh. Since the onset of COVID-19, these women have had to deal with the livelihoods impact of the pandemic as well as job losses and delayed salaries due to order cancellations. The study will gather evidence on how COVID-19 is affecting women working in the RMG sector, their livelihood transitions, and their coping strategies to help identify interventions that can be useful for recovery. 

Researchers: Lopita Huq; Dr Razia Sultana; Taslima Aktar; Afsana Alam; Saklain Al Mamun; Shravasti Roy Nath; Dr Naila Kabeer

Partners: London School of Economics (LSE)

Timeline: January–December 2021

Status: Completed

Method: Qualitative

Contact: Lopita Huq


Working Paper: Livelihood Transitions and Coping With Shocks: Women in the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) Sector Coping With COVID-19

Op-ed: Breaks at work: a right, not a privilege


Although the readymade garments (RMG) sector has been one of the main proponents of economic growth in Bangladesh, the nation’s comparative advantage in the industry has relied heavily on the backs of disadvantaged women. International attention to workers in global value chains has ensured that, outside the public sector, this category of women wage workers enjoy most formal rights, although these rights are not uniformly enforced. The pandemic has revealed the fragile basis on which these rights rested. It is crucial to know how garment workers, particularly female workers, who are key to the national economy, are being affected by these, how they are coping with the crisis and what necessary actions need to be taken if they are to resume their role in the economy.


The study aims to understand how COVID-19 is affecting women RMG workers’ and their households’ livelihood transitions and coping strategies.


We aim to purposely select 50 women from previous survey samples to cover different categories, such as RMG workers who have migrated back to rural areas, those who have rejoined factories and those who have continued in urban areas in a different line of work. We aim to conduct in-depth interviews with these respondents. We will also conduct key informant interviews (KIIs) with trade union leaders and NGOs active in the sector such as Karmojibi Nari.

Findings and Recommendations

The garment industry in Bangladesh experienced a period of uncertainty and hardship due to the government’s lack of clarity about the duration of the lockdown and employers’ responsibility. It was essential to the country’s economy due to its role in generating 80% of the country’s foreign exchange and 20% of its GDP. International pressure persuaded many of the buyers to rethink their strategy of the abrupt cancellation of orders, and the government put together a stimulus package to help pay workers’ salaries in export industries. By August 2021, RMG employers had decided to run factories at full capacity, maintaining health guidelines, despite the government’s directive to reduce the workforce in all organizations. However, there was a turnaround in the industry’s performance as buyers started reviving most of the cancelled orders. Our previous research on domestic workers highlighted what this meant for some of the most vulnerable workers in the economy. The instrumental need to support garment workers because of their role in generating the country’s foreign exchange should not prevent the government from paying greater attention to the needs of the country’s other workers. An ex-ante approach to the provision of such a safety net would have avoided the suffering of the most vulnerable workers, and will protect them in the face of future crises. This is a lesson that policymakers in Bangladesh need to learn from the experiences of this pandemic.


The study is part of the Covid Collective initiative. Supported by the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Covid Collective is based at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). The Collective brings together the expertise of UK and Southern-based research partner organizations and offers a rapid social science research response to inform decision-making on some of the most pressing development challenges related to COVID-19.