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Made in Bangladesh: Psychosocial Hazards, the Labour Process and Women Garment Workers

posted on 2024-02-12, 00:43 authored by Humaira Naznin

In recent decades, workplace psychosocial hazards and their remediation have begun to receive growing attention from policymakers and regulators. Empirical and policy-based literature on psychosocial risk has centred on developed countries and has utilised organisational psychology theories (e.g., the Job Demands-Resources Model) on work stress and related phenomena to explain the incidence, causes and outcomes of psychosocial risks. These conceptual models explain psychosocial harms in terms of factors related to aspects of work such as job demands, job control and job resources and the immediate workplace environment. They neglect broader economic, political and socio-cultural environmental factors which influence the nature of work and management strategy. This thesis suggests instead the application of Labour Process theory to explain the phenomenon of psychosocial hazards in the particular context of the Bangladesh readymade garment (RMG) industry.

This PhD thesis seeks to address the gap in knowledge concerning psychosocial hazards in the developing world, by focusing on the RMG industry of Bangladesh. While considerable empirical research and regulatory attention has focused on this sector in relation to occupational health and safety hazards such as structural and building safety (Alamgir & Banerjee, 2019; Neve & Prentice, 2017; Siddiqi, 2022), there has been limited research on psychosocial hazards. This neglect contributes to the lack of public policy and regulatory attempts to manage work-related psychosocial risks in the RMG sector despite growing suggestions that significant psychosocial risks characterise the industry.

This research project examines existing and emerging psychosocial risk factors in the Bangladesh RMG industry using a bottom-up, inductive approach (Prentice et al., 2018) to explore the perceptions and experiences of women garment workers with psychosocial hazards and harms. The research seeks to identify the psychosocial hazards experienced by women workers, who constitute a majority of the RMG workforce (particularly in its low status occupations), and to explain the relationship between these hazards and the nature of work in RMG factories, one objective being, ultimately, to propose policy and regulatory measures to improve psychosocial safety.

The research findings shed light on the emergence of new hazards alongside the prevailing psychosocial hazards of work intensification through unpredictable and forced overtime, compulsory and unpaid work, and forms of verbal, physical and sexual coercion. The new hazards include gender-specific behaviour-oriented psychosocial hazards in the forms of punitive and forced isolation, public shaming, garmenting and blood shaming as well as psychosocial risks associated with devious and manipulative management practices, such as the ‘blank paper strategy’, ‘not allowed to go home policy’, ‘duplicity of timesheet’, and the sexual harassment of workers by external stakeholders. The study identifies both immediate and potential long-term health outcomes of psychosocial hazards manifested through women workers’ experiences of emotional and psychological distress, anxiety, stress, fear, shame and humiliation, emotional outburst, and trauma symptoms. The study further highlights four mechanisms, including outperformance, internal monologue or self-talk, temporary self-withdrawal, and largely, a quiescent silence, which women workers use to cope with associated psychosocial harm.

While the Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model commonly has been used as a conceptual tool to analyse psychosocial risk, the model’s neglect of the environmental context and sources of management strategy proved too limited to explain the phenomenon in the RMG industry context in Bangladesh, where global supply chain relationships, gendered cultural dynamics and other contextual factors impose critical influences on the nature of work and management strategy. Following Dollard et al’s (2019) observations on the importance of vii   taking capitalist relations of production into account in explaining workplace psychosocial health and wellbeing, and Robinson and Rainbird’s (2013) argument about the value of the Labour Process Theory perspective in understanding global supply chains, this thesis draws on Labour Process Theory to provide a context-based explanatory analysis relevant to understanding the nature, causes, and underlying mechanisms of psychosocial risks in developing countries, such as Bangladesh.

This thesis proposes a theoretical framework with Labour Process Theory at its core, which combines the central driver of the labour process with some key concepts drawn from the JD-R model. The theoretical framework sheds light on the significant influence of the external environment on the development of psychosocial hazards and harms within the workplace. The study makes several significant contributions to scholarship through the proposed theoretical framework, the exploration of the relationship between gender and forms of psychosocial hazards, the analysis of crucial role of global supply chains in shaping psychosocial risks at work and the light shed on the importance of considering economic, social, political, and cultural contexts in understanding how and why psychosocial hazards occur and in developing appropriate regulatory and policy measures to improve psychosocial health and safety.


Table of Contents

Chapter I. Introduction -- Chapter II. A Background to The Readymade Garment Industry in Bangladesh -- Chapter III. Literature Review -- Chapter IV. Theoretical Frameworks -- Chapter V. Research Methodology -- Chapter VI. Findings -- Chapter VII. Discussion -- Chapter VIII. Policy Implications -- Chapter IX. Conclusion -- References -- Appendix

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Department of Management

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Louise Thornthwaite

Additional Supervisor 1

Candy Lu


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