Housing Female Migrant Workers
Planning for the expanding female workforce in Narayanganj, Bangladesh
Ciara Stein (MUP & MLA I, ’21)
The Narayanganj City Corporation (NCC), located 17 km from Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, is situated along the banks of the Shitoloksha in Western Bengal. NCC is one of the oldest urban settlements in Bangladesh and has undergone many transformations: first as a Moghul city, then as a Colonial trading center focused on large-scale jute production, and now as an industrial center for the growing garment and service industries.
On account of the city and regional economic agglomeration, Narayanganj is projected to double in size over the next 20 years from two to four million people, estimated by local officials. As NCC continues to rapidly grow, the city’s housing will be greatly shaped by the incoming population, much of whom will be female rural-urban migrant workers. On the national level, concerning rural-urban migration flows, the proportion of young men is greater and there is a broader age composition among men. However, women are increasingly playing an important role and now dominate the flow from the age range 15-29.
Women face a litany of social challenges in Bangladesh. While the minimum legal age of marriage for girls is 18, it is constantly flouted. Shockingly, 46% of girls aged 15-19 are married (DHS, 2011) and 9% of girls aged 15 have already begun childbearing (DHS, 2014). Moreover, almost half of urban female workers are unpaid family workers, compared to 4% of urban male workers (BBS, 2011).
In the Dhaka Megacity, which includes NCC, the largest percentage of female workers, especially migrants, are employed in food processing, woodworking, garment manufacturing, and other trades. There are significant benefits to the expansion of opportunities for women, both migrants and non-migrants. Female paid employment challenges the norms of social and economic isolation, while providing women with incomes. The trend enables women to marry later, gain social status and recognition, and gain greater independence. However, employment, especially in the readymade garment industry, exposes women to harassment, discrimination, and unsafe working conditions.
No initiatives have taken place to adequately house female migrant workers. As such, they are extremely vulnerable. In addition to low wages, migrant workers have limited money to spend on housing as they are likely to send a significant portion of their salaries back to their families in rural villages. Currently, 40% of the city’s structures are temporary (katcha). The structures are usually single story and constructed by community members with found materials such as scape aluminum and mud. Often the homes are elevated with piles, yet remain extremely vulnerable to climatic events, particularly flooding. Structures can house upwards of three families, or 15 people, in an average home size of 480.39 square feet. Overcrowding is frequent and leads to severe health risks. The structures have one shared room, where inhabitants sleep, cook, eat, and, often, work. Women are especially vulnerable in these unsafe housing conditions and over long journeys as they commute from home to work. As such, it is critical to consider housing options for female migrants close to work.
Among other interventions, including long-term land tenure agreements, community housing development funds, and housing material upgrading, efforts should be made to specific plans and designs for female migrant workers in Narayanganj. The government should engage in partnerships for employers to provide dormitories with improved accommodation for female factory workers. The dormitories should be located close to work and provide hygienic, well-lit, and secure homes. Given their position as the backbone of the expanding garment industry, on which much of the city’s economic prosperity relies, it is vital to center female migrant workers in the future of Narayanganj.