The garment industry in Bangladesh has received a lot of bad press in the last few years with the collapse of factories and threats of boycotts by workers’ rights groups. The question of whether employment in these industries is beneficial to workers, and particularly female workers, remains open. Economists tend to emphasize the effects on female empowerment (bargaining power, buying power, delayed childbearing, for instance), while rights groups enumerate the safety concerns and potential human rights abuses (long hours, low pay, no overtime pay, etc.).
While by no means offering a definitive answer the question, a new paper by Rachel Health and Mushfiq Mobarak (NBER gated or not gated) attempts to show that the economist are right. The paper shows that exposure to garment sector jobs increases age at marriage and first birth for girls and women in Bangladesh. Child marriage and early childbirth are common in Bangladesh, outcomes which expose women and girls to abuse, early mortality and morbidity, domestic violence, low educational attainment and more. If the garment industry is avoiding or delaying some of these outcomes by providing different opportunities, that’s certainly something to note.
Perhaps more importantly, the paper shows that there are significant returns to education within the garment sector. More educated employees receive higher pay and opportunities for advancement. Subsequently, knowledge of these additional returns to education may actually increase educational attainment in addition to these other desirable outcomes. There’s some concern about endogenous factory placement in the paper and how that might affect their results, but the authors do a nice job addressing it.