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Women labour force in Bangladesh: Key facts and trends

Iqbal Hossain | December 11, 2018 00:00:00


Women tend to use their incomes more productively and it was found that women devoted 90 cents of every dollar they earned for their families, including children's education, health and nutrition compared to 30-40 cents by men (Development Report 2012, World Bank). Thus, enhancing women's economic participation can help in realisation of the several Sustainable Development Goals. Women in Bangladesh made progress notably in terms of their participation in the labour force in the last two decades. During the period of 1996-2017, the national rate of female labour force participation increased from 15.8 to 36.3 per cent, while the male rate fell from 87.0 to 80.5 per cent. So the gender gap narrowed from 71.2 percentage points in 1996 to 44.2 percentage points in 2017 (Figure 1).

The current women labour force participation rate (LFPR) is far below the East Asia and Pacific average, 64 per cent (ADB, 2016). The overall growth rates of women labour force and employment had been accelerated during 1996-2010 and the rates varied based on locality, administrative divisions, age cohorts, education, employment nature and sectors.

(1) Rural-Urban: The female labour force participation is likely to vary between urban and rural areas in terms of opportunities of employment. Urban areas are likely to create more paid employment opportunities, whereas rural areas generate more scope for informal employment and self-employment. During 1995-96 the women's participation in the labour force was higher in urban areas (20.5) compared to the rural areas (17.4), which was higher until 2000-03 and after that the scenario reversed. According to the latest labour force survey 2016-17, the women LFPR in the rural areas (38.6 per cent) was much higher than the urban areas (31.0 per cent). This increase in the number of women has been associated with the high growth of employment in the ready-made garments sector, the increase in the women's employment opportunities in the rural non-farm activities (self-employed category) induced by the micro credit programmes, i.e. in livestock and poultry raising and better enumeration capturing the contribution of family members in their economic activities (unpaid women family workers). Recently, the employment growth in the ready-made garment sector slowed down or was stagnant and the employment opportunities in the construction sector fell. It has a negative impact on the urban women's labour force participation rate.

(2) Administrative division: Considerable diversity in the women's labour force participation rates has been observed at the divisional level (Figure 2). Rajshahi division has experienced the highest female participation in the labour market at 49.8 per cent, followed by Khulna division (42.2 per cent) and Rangpur division (41.5 per cent). In contrast, the women's labour force participation has been the lowest in Sylhet division at 23.3 per cent, followed by Dhaka division at 29.9 per cent and Barishal division at 29.8 per cent. The poverty incidence and concentration in the northern part of the country act as a push factor for higher female participation in Rajshahi and Rangpur division (Figure 2).

The concentration of export-oriented shrimp culture generates female labour demand in the coastal areas of Khulna division.

(3) Age cohorts and quality of labour force: An important point to note is that the figures above include all women above 15 years of age. This means that the trends combine changes across different population sub-groups (e.g. Young women, married women, older women, etc.). Indeed, group-specific trends do not always follow the overall trends. Specifically, trends in labour force participation among younger women are often different from the aggregate trends and also the higher educated youths are different from less educated. It is observed that women LFPR has changed with the age cohorts, in 2017 a higher number of younger women (20 to 34 years) came to work compared to the teenage and older women. This improvement has been influenced by government intervention in girls' education in Bangladesh initiated in the early 1990s. It is expected that the female participation in the labour force might increase, as a greater number of young women will enter the job market. For such improvements, both our public and private sector investment is required which will generate more job opportunities for younger females.

The existing employed women were more educated compared to the women employed before 20 years ago. In 1996, the majority (58 per cent) of the employed women were with no education and only 10 per cent of them were with the educational background at the secondary level and above, while currently more than 40 per cent of the employed women having education at the secondary level and above (Various rounds of LFS, BBS). The quality of the women labour force has improved over time irrespective of the market demand, while the average level of education is much higher compared to the employed women as described in the LFS in 2016-17.

(4) Nature of employment: The emerging feature of the women's employment growth is the dominance of the contributing unpaid family helper. During last two decades (1996-2017) the number of own account workers or self-employed category women increased significantly, from 31 per cent to 39 per cent. Similarly, contributing family helper or unpaid family worker category also increased from 18.5 per cent in 1996 to 28 per cent in 2017. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) changed its employee's definition in 2015-16 terming labourers employees, which showed a huge drop in terms of share of women's employment (Table 1). Overall, the quality of employment did not change at all, and this type of labour force participation cannot bring expected improvement in women's empowerment and welfare.

Women's entrepreneurial capacity can have a significant impact on promoting women's economic empowerment. Over the time, more women come up with their own business creating employment opportunities for themselves and other females, although their business is mostly in the micro or cottage category and suffering capital inadequacy problems. During the period of 2003-2013, the number of women entrepreneurs increased from 3.1 per cent to 5.9 per cent, which implies that more females are getting into the business as the head of establishments (Economic Census, 2001 & 2003 and 2013).

(5) Sectoral employment: The proportion of women's employment in agriculture has declined with economic development and has increased in non-agricultural activities. Although the share of women's employment in agriculture sector declines, it is still absorbing the majority (60 per cent) of the women's employment (Table 2). During the period of 2006-2017, women's participation in agricultural activities increased in livestock, including poultry which is a sub-sector of agriculture. This phenomenon expanded due to the extensive microcredit programme among women. More than 90 per cent of micro-credit borrowers are women and a large part of their credit is used in economic activities like poultry and livestock rearing. The LFS data show that a significant portion of females are employed in the agricultural sub-sectors like growing of non-perennial crops (42.3%), livestock farming (9.5%) etc.

In contrast, women's employment increased over time in the industrial sector, from 12.5 per cent in 1996 to 16.9 per cent in 2017. The manufacturing sector accounts for most of the industrial women employment, i.e. ready-made garments, textile, leather and leather goods, pharmaceuticals, food and tobacco products, etc. Traditionally, RMG is a labour intensive sector, more specifically, the sector is dominated by female workers. Similarly, then about one-fourth of the women's employment is concentrated in the services sector and it is growing at a higher rate than that in the industrial sector. During the 2000-2010 period, women's employment in the services sector like wholesale and retail trade; transport, storage and communication; community, social and personal services grew faster than their participation in other sectors. After 2010, higher growth in women's participation is observed in sectors like hotel and restaurants, financial intermediations, public administration and education and health. This implies that women increasingly prefer formal and remunerative jobs rather than informal and less remunerative jobs.

(4) Unemployment rate: The overall unemployment rate was around 4.2-4.5 per cent during the period of 2006-2016, While, unemployment rate among the youth females aged 15-29 years is higher compared to their male counterparts and it has followed increasing trends over the time, 8.5 per cent in 2010 to 11.8 per cent in 2016 (Figure 3).

One of the notable feature of the recent women labour force is a high rate of inactive youths, for example, around 30 per cent of the working age youths aged 15-29 years were not in education or training, nor in employment, and the majority (87 per cent) of them were women (LFS 2016-17, BBS). Furthermore, around one-fourth of the educated women are unemployed which are higher in the urban areas compared to the rural areas. That indicates a lack of employment opportunities for the educated youths, or there is a miss-match between education and the existing market job requirement. The skill training will be crucial for them.

Women's employment increases with respect to output growth. It implies that women have been able to access jobs during the process of economic development. The employment elasticity of growth for females become inelastic after 2010 and becomes negative for youth females, which implies the current growth failed to create job opportunities for female youths (Table 3). It implies the mismatch between the demand and the supply which needs to be reduced to enhance women's economic participation.

As we already observed that construction sectors and RMG sector are depending more on upgraded technology and the others will also follow them. BIDS (2016) identified skill gaps in different sectors and projected future employment demand and training. It is noted that the ready-made garments sector will demand more labour in the category of sewing machine operators, the quality inspector (cutting, sewing, and finishing) and finishing operators. The construction sector is expected to change production processes in the next five years as a result of technological advancement. The sector is expected to demand more workers operating small cranes in building construction, masons, plumbers, electrical mechanics, rod-binders, painters, tillers, shuttering workers, etc. The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector will demand more programmers and software engineers, Mid-level product/project managers, Networking engineers, IT-BPO professionals and hardware engineers. In the health sector currently there is a shortage of 90,000 nurses and in future this will increase. In the textile sector, there will be more demand for skilled patter and design engineers, software-based production and dyeing operators.

Therefore, to increase the decent jobs and women's economic participation, we need to take some initiatives on both demand and supply sides. The policy makers should create employment opportunities both in rural and urban areas and also focus on all lagging regions. Now it's time to think why women's labour force participation is declining in the urban areas compared to the rural. There might be both demand and supply side factors in that decline. Government technical training institutions can provide more practical training with job placement facilities in close collaboration with the business sector. As there is a growing demand for skilled workers, we should focus more on technical and vocational education with the proper recognition.

Iqbal Hossain is working as a research associate at BIDS. His current area of research includes labour market issues, social development and public policy.

iqbal@bids.org.bd


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