The tragedy in Savar has given rise to much soul searching and pointing out blame. Much of the criticism is justified. Humanitarianism will do much good, but it is not as steady a force as the urge for profits. Profits are not bad, it is the urge to make profits now that is the issue. It is the desperation with which profits are sought as fast as possible which leads to the many shady activities that eventually harm our long-run self-interest. If we want a more sustainable, longer-term, solution we have to have long-term aims. Of course we want profits, but they need not be profits right now.
Bangladesh has the potential to become, as the news channels put it, “tailor to the world.” There are no guarantees. Some one or two or five poorer countries may suddenly coordinate their policies so effectively that the growth of RMG in Bangladesh is no longer number one. Hence, economic growth cannot be reliant on RMG as primary exports. If Bangladesh is to utilise its economic advantages, it will have to develop varied industries. So a long-term view requires a policy which allows ready access to the market, while building industrial units that are capable of utilising cheap labor in a flexible manner to adapt to world market fluctuations. Since the most lucrative markets are in the developed world, these plans will have to comport with the quality and labour standards required by the EU and the USA. Here then are the conditions that have to be met:
· Easy access to markets;
· Infrastructure enabled;
· Flexible to new needs;
· Labour standards compliant.
Market access is brought about by locating at or near a major road; electricity and gas lines are also typically available at such locations. These roads can be in cities or along major highways. Each location has its good and bad points. Flexibility to meet market volatility is a sign of good entrepreneurship and Bangladeshi entrepreneurs are now sufficiently mature to meet such challenges. Maintaining quality is an entrepreneurial issue and, in general terms, it is most safely entrusted to the RMG owners — since they will make no sales otherwise. So the most trying issue is that of figuring out how compliance with labour laws can be obtained.
The discussion so far has urged stricter laws and, more importantly, even stricter compliance. The difficulty with the language of the current discussion is that it does not attempt to systematically engage our better side. While laws are relatively easy to write it is compliance that is really hard. Who will fund the inspectors, what incentive will they have to be strict and how will we know that the fines are paid or the prosecutions completed? Are there arrangements which will be more conducive to keeping both owners and workers happy?
During the Industrial Revolution many factory owners built entire factory villages, with houses for workers, stores for the families, and schools for the children. Some owners did this to get near water power, others to be near coal, and some to keep an eye on the work habits of the workers. For the workers, it meant having a place where they could not only work, but also live. Their homes were near, their family was at hand, education of children was being looked after. The relations were often paternalistic, which is a bad word nowadays; but when we ask employers to be caring of their workers, what is this compassion but a species of paternal care?
We see at least one sizable garment factory, set up many years ago in Miyabazar on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway. More recently, several factories have been set up along the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, outside Narshinghdi. As these have been set up entirely privately, we may be sure that such enterprises can be profitable. The question now is whether such enterprises can be persuaded to delay profit taking in order to build more comprehensive factories which will cater not only to the income of workers but also to their lives. Even the land needed for such larger units can be obtained in co-operative fashion by giving the owners of the acquired land shares in the new RMG factory in addition to the usual monetary compensation. There must be a hundred large RMGs which hire over 5,000 workers; when we take into account all those who will be needed to house, feed, clothe and educate the workers and their families, we have all the elements of a small township.
This brings me to the final step of such a new industrial unit; local self-government within such new productive townships. This last needs the enabling hand of the government. We do not want such enterprise-towns to be set up by the government, just that the obstacles in cooperative association and production be removed. Provide the civic machinery for such townships to tax and spend and use its own police; let there be competition between such townships to attract and hold business and industry; and let the government set the legal framework for such local government to survive and flourish. Such a model will give Bangladesh the industrial structure it needs to prosper in an increasingly globalised and competitive world.
The writer is visiting Professor, University Malay and Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois.