Ready-made garment industries is one sector in Bangladesh that has flourished because of low labour costs, relatively less investment costs and poor compliance to international standards. When the pioneer ‘Desh Garments’ started, by a retired civil servant Nurul Quader in the early seventies, little did he visualise the forces he was about to unleash in this sector. From a quaint start that employed only several thousand female workers, the industry has now bloated to gargantuan proportions that employs about 4 million workers and exports $19 billion worth of garments annually.
It is therefore time to look in depth at the state of this industry. The garment owners have been raking in sizeable profits; with little reciprocal gain accruing to the RMG workers. By investing little and using cheap labour many of them have brought disrepute to the country. Incidents of fire, building collapse, Dickensian exploitation are one too many.
The government must look closely at certain things, first being the physical infrastructure that houses these industries. It must ascertain whether these are safe and environment friendly. How do the captain of these industries recruit, train and put to work the available human resources? Do they provide a fair wage to their labour? Do the labourers receive the benefits promised by management? When there are industrial accidents leading to death or disability, does management see to it that the victim’s family is adequately compensated? So if there is breach on implementing any of the terms agreed to by the employer, where does a worker go to redeem the loss?
But just as workers have rights, they also have responsibilities. Do they conform to high standards of discipline, loyalty towards their employer, and do they strive to improve productivity? Do they support the management to achieve industry compliance? Does a laborer help the employer increase his returns?
It is regrettable that much of our RMG industry is in a mess. To begin with, garments are produced in four different kinds of premises. There are those RMG units which operate from rented apartments in big cities. Because of paucity of space, even bathrooms in such premises are converted to accommodate sewing machines.
Then there are RMG units located in commercial buildings (like the ones in Rana Plaza in Savar) where other assorted offices are located. Here achieving industry compliance is almost impossible. The garment employer is subject to the diktat of the owners of the building.
The third category of premises from where RMG units work is within commercial buildings which are rented for producing garments only. Here achieving compliance is relatively easy and doable.
Finally, there are fully internationally compliant garment factories.
It is the first two categories of premises that rise as matters of concern. Here corrupt employers obtain a ‘no objection certificate’ from equally corrupt building regulatory authorities. Such premises could at times be death traps for workers. Rana Plaza is a case to point where till yesterday more than five hundred bodies have been recovered from the collapsed building where five RMG factories were located.
The next issue is how our garment factory-owners treat their workers. When the monthly salary of the unskilled labour hovers between TK.3,000 to Tk.3,500 (average $40) per month, and that also not always paid on time, it tantamount to exploitation of these voiceless people.
Many unscrupulous employers use various ploys to keep them working at that low salary. They classify them as temporary, casual or badli (substitute) workers. They are then paid much less than a regular wage. They are not given a formal appointment letter or issued an identity card. So they are not aware of their terms of employment.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. When workers want to unionise, they are discouraged to do so, with threats of dismissal or they are handed over to the police as “trouble makers.” The only alternative for many of them is to organise themselves under a fictitious banner of a welfare organisation. Trade union rights are denied. Goons and goondas are used by such employers to get labourers to obey their orders.
What does BGMEA, the organisation that looks after the interest of the employers, do? They quietly point out that it would be imprudent to publicise the deed of the recalcitrant employers as this could give a bad name to the Bangladesh RMG industry. Some foreign buyers overlook such violations because they are keen to continue to purchase garments at extremely low prices.
Yet Article 14 of Bangladesh constitution states that “It is of fundamental responsibility of the state to emancipate the toiling masses, the peasant and workers and the backward section of the people from all forms of exploitation.” It is therefore the task of our government to look at these problems straight in the eye and take corrective action. Passing good labour laws are the first step. But a correct and humane implementation of these laws is critical.
The recent Rana Plaza tragedy has given a body blow to the image of our RMG industry. Even Pope Francis in a meeting with brand CEOs recently described RMG workers in Bangladesh as “slave workers.” How far this appellation is correct time will decide, but for the moment as a moral authority he has spoken out. The ILO and UN Human Rights organisations have also expressed their deep concern about the state of affairs.
It is in this backdrop that we urge our government to start a serious appraisal of our RMG industries. Industrial auditors should be brought in to scan the industry from top to bottom. The rights of the workers, the expectation of the employer, the negotiating capability of the marketer, the role of industrial police, our inspection system must come under the microscope.
A credible audit and swift implementation of their recommendations will allow us to avert losing our GSP facility in Europe and perhaps obtain duty-free status for entry of garments in the US. Let us not forget that we are the world’s second largest RMG supplier. We can through quick and easy steps become the No.1 supplier with export earnings of US$ 50 billion if we can get our house in order.
There are powerful and influential persons in the RMG industry. To what use is the 30 odd member of parliament who are also garment owners? Why they have not voiced their concern in more emphatic terms and taken initiatives to contain this loss of image? Mr. Fazlul Azim MP and a garment owner has only implored the brands not to abandon buying garments from Bangladesh.
Only the weight of the prime minister’s office and the unflinching support of the parliament and our judiciary can see us through this man-made crisis.