New Research on Women Garment Workers & Vision Care

New research from Orbis focuses on women garment factory workers in Bangladesh, a country that is home to the second-largest readymade garment industry in the world.

We're excited to announce the release of new research demonstrating that unaddressed near vision impairment is leading to lower monthly salaries for women garment factory workers in Bangladesh. The study is published in a special issue of the Asia Pacific Journal of Ophthalmology on the prevalence and impact of near- and far-sightedness in the Asia Pacific region and globally.

“Given that women constitute the majority of workers in the garment industry globally, the study offers evidence that increasing access to quality eye care can help increase earnings among female workers and has the potential to pull more women out of poverty,” said Dr. Munir Ahmed, Country Director for Orbis Bangladesh. "Most encouraging, our findings and proposed solutions are relevant across other industries with a high proportion of female workers as well.”

2019: An Orbis study shows high rates of near vision impairment among women garment workers in Bangladesh

The Cost of Near Vision Loss

Bangladesh is home to the second-largest readymade garment industry in the world, following China. Garment production accounts for over 80% of Bangladesh’s total export earnings and employs approximately 4 million workers, over half of whom are women. The nature of tasks involved in the production of garments, such as sewing and cutting, requires the ability to see up close, making good near vision a requirement for garment workers.

The new research shows that women garment workers in Bangladesh, particularly those in rural areas, suffer from high rates of near vision impairment, which was associated with earning a lower monthly salary, even after adjusting for other factors such as years on the job and daily working hours. Strikingly, high rates of near vision impairment (> 20%) are already present among women aged 30-35 years, at the height of the working years for many women.

A female garment worker from Bangladesh is screened during the study in 2019

Treatment for near vision loss is inexpensive – calling only for a pair of glasses in most cases – and could increase earnings by some US$70 per year. This difference is equivalent to six weeks of income above the World Bank’s poverty line. The amount is also sufficient to cover nearly a month of expenses for one’s child, per estimates from UNICEF that the annual cost to raise a child in developing countries is US$900. Factories also stand to gain from workers’ increased productivity.

To conduct the research, Orbis Bangladesh, together with Nari Uddug Kendra, a nongovernmental national women’s development support organization, carried out free eye health screening and service delivery for women garment workers at four factories, two urban and two rural, in Bangladesh in 2019.

Gender Disparities in Eye Care

Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by blindness and visual impairment, representing 55 percent of people with vision loss globally. With near vision loss specifically, women often require correction at an earlier age than men.

In low- to middle-income countries especially, women may struggle to pay for vision health services due to poor access to family financial resources. They often have fewer options to travel to receive treatment, and may be less aware of the availability of eye care and how to seek it.

The recently published study signposts how to address the barriers women face, proposing solutions such as workplace screenings and the provision of glasses as a scalable strategy for poverty reduction. By fighting preventable vision loss in industries with a high proportion of female workers, we can begin to address gender disparities and combat the adverse economic impact of gender inequality.

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