Country's export-oriented readymade garment (RMG) units employ around 2.7 million workers, as per a new survey conducted for digital mapping of the industry, which is far short of around 4.0 million the entrepreneurs often claim.
The survey found 3,485 such units: 1,351 in Dhaka, 1,057 in Gazipur, 615 in Narayanganj, 386 in Chattogram and the rest in other parts of the country.
Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB), a project of Brac University supported by development partners and backed by the trade bodies in the sector, has conducted the survey since December 2017.
MiB communicated the initial findings in the survey with the FE on Monday.
The first phase of the project to track factories digitally will come to an end next March.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) differed with the number of workers identified under the survey, but endorsed the number of factories.
"We have a database of about 4.3 million workers," BGMEA president Faruque Hassan told the FE. He, however, recognises that the database has not been updated with workers who left their respective units.
The existing data available with the government or BGMEA are either 'outdated' or 'confusing and conflicting' while those are not publicly accessible, according to an economist.
Under the survey, the MiB put in its digital tracking system the basic information of factories, such as name, address, number of workers and affiliation with brands. It also included product-wise descriptions of factories like knit, woven and sweater.
The ratio of male and female workers now stands at 42:58 in the multibillion-dollar industry that earned US$31.45 billion in the last fiscal year.
Out of the total factories, 1951 are affiliated with BGMEA, 520 with Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) and 257 are registered with both the trade bodies in the apparel sector.
Besides, MiB identified some 757 factories that are producing and exporting garment items but not registered with either.
The MiB has completed collecting and mapping all the export-oriented RMG units of Bangladesh and so far collected information of around 3,500 factories, its senior systems coordinator Jabeer Al Sherazy told the FE on Monday.
The mapping includes various data points like factory location, establishment year, factory type, membership, inspection, type of products, certification, type of factory premises, name and distance from the nearest fire station and medical service centre.
Replying to a question, Mr Jabeer said they were conducting a pilot programme to get updated information of the already-mapped factories and expressed the hope that they would formally announce the updated information early next year.
Some new factories might be included in the map while the closed ones, if any, will be excluded, he said, adding that the number would not be that much.
According to the BGMEA website, the trade body has around 4,500 member-factories: 40 per cent knitwear and sweater manufactures, and 60 per cent are woven manufactures.
Some 2,000 factories are registered with the BKMEA and around 700 are active now, according to BKMEA leaders.
The BGMEA president said the number of export-oriented RMG factories is more or less around 3,500, but 2,800 factories are running their business. Some 2,000 of BGMEA members are engaged in direct export.
"The rest of the factories do sub-contracting job," he noted, adding that BGMEA and Brac have teamed up recently to fine-tune the exact number of workers by using the MiB and the trade body's database.
When asked, Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said MiB has been providing 'real-time' data, which is very important for the country's largest foreign currency-earning sector, to understand the major and concerning issues.
There is no comprehensive database with the government agencies concerned like BBS and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), he said, adding that the data they have are either 'out-dated' or 'confusing and conflicting'. Those are not publicly accessible either.
Explaining the necessity of a real-time database, he said: "There is no scope of confusion over the MiB data though it has the opportunity to expand its capacity by incorporating information of all garment- producing factories, especially those that are not registered with BGMEA and BKMEA and do sub-contracting jobs."
Mr Moazzem, however, feels that the MiB work should continue and collaborate with the stakeholders concerned so that the employers, brands/buyers, policymakers, researchers and consumers can get a real picture of the industry with credible data.