The painful saga of the Tuba Group workers' agitation over a payment of dues has been quite revealing of the questionable role played by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) in the crisis. And that has been despite the fact that the association was tasked to streamline its member factories.
The BGMEA staged the payment drama at such a time when the whole world has been focusing on Bangladesh's garment sector, particularly over safety and labour standards in the workplace.
The BGMEA was also supposed to monitor such compliance factors as timely payment of wages and safety and security measures for workers of its affiliated member factories. Sadly, though, that role was conspicuous by its absence.
The laidback role of the BGMEA has, it appears, only encouraged member factories in perpetuating their bad practices. Their misdeeds touched the peaks.
The ramifications of the BGMEA's laxity in monitoring the factories are all out there: there has been a collapse in safety and security measures in the garment units.
Memories are yet fresh in the public mind about the callousness which caused two of the deadliest disasters in the nation's garments sector. The Tazreen Fashions fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse occurred within a space of six months between 2012 and 2013.
It was the nation that paid the price when the US went for the harsh move of suspending trade privileges under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) on June 27 last year.
It is not too hard to see that the Tuba Group's sister
concern Tazreen Fashions was largely responsible for the suspension of the GSP facilities. As if that was not enough of a shock, the collapse of the Rana Plaza only compounded the issue.
The suspension of the GSP status was clearly indicative of serious shortcomings insofar as labour rights and workplace safety in the sector were concerned. It was a blow for the country since the United States happens to be the single largest export market for Bangladesh. Meanwhile, there is the fear that the European Union, where 59 percent of the country's exports are headed, might at some point be influenced by the US decision.
On July 8 last year, the Bangladesh government was compelled to sign a Sustainability Compact with the EU, promising an improvement in labour rights and workplace safety standards. It was humiliating, but necessary.
Irony has been a striking feature in the garments sector despite the recent tragic incidents. Where after the Tazreen Fashions fire tragedy of November 24, 2012, Delwar Hossain, managing director of the Tuba Group, was not seen in public, he was spotted voting at the BGMEA election only a few months later. That he enjoyed the protection of the BGMEA was made clear.
But the pressure of public opinion compelled the BGMEA at one point to advise Delwar Hossain to surrender to a court. Once he complied with the instruction, the court, not granting him bail, sent him to jail on February 9 this year.
Such manoeuvrings have repeatedly called the BGMEA's role into question. Its sense of responsibility has been found lacking, as seen by its inability or unwillingness to pay compensation to the victims of the Tazreen Fashions fire and the Rana Plaza collapse.
Following the Tazreen incident, BGMEA in December 2012 announced a cancellation of the membership of 850 errant and non-compliant factories in phases. But then came another instance of irony: the decision to cancel membership was simply not implemented. Five months later came the Rana Plaza disaster. At the BGMEA election in March 2013, even errant factory owners cast votes.
That said, the BGMEA was expected to ensure a payment of compensation to workers after every factory disaster. It was a job it did not or would not do properly. And this time, through the Tuba affair, the BGMEA is allegedly engaged in a contrived drama to have the detained Delwar Hossain, owner of the group, freed from imprisonment.
It may be mentioned that the group did not clear three months' arrears in wages and bonuses to 1,600 workers of five units of the group before the Eid festival. According to the high-ups of the group, the affected five units have the capacity to export $30 lakh worth of garment products a month.
The five units exported $36 lakh worth of jerseys for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil between January and March this year.
Surprisingly, the group cleared the salaries and bonuses of the workers of Tuba Fashions Limited, another unit of the company, before Eid. But the management simply ignored the workers of the five units in question. The workers were pushed into a situation where they had to resort to a hunger strike to realise their demand.
The hunger strike commenced a day before the Eid festival got underway. It has gone on despite an assurance by the BGMEA of two months' salaries being paid to them.
The workers, for all the right reasons, asked for immediate and full payment of their dues. That means the Tuba Group needs Tk4.14 crore to fulfil the demand.
The BGMEA, under pressure from the workers, at an emergency meeting on Saturday decided to arrange funds from big garment groups in order to tide over the immediate crisis.
It may be noted that before Eid the BGMEA said it had tried to manage funds from the bank to pay the workers. Interestingly, the bank made it known that the BGMEA leaders had not talked to the bank manager about the loan.
The BGMEA has thus been tying itself in knots. According to the Foreign Exchange Branch of Jamuna Bank at Motijheel, neither the Tuba Group nor the BGMEA had applied to the bank for loans to be paid as salaries to the workers.
The BGMEA leaders, it may be noted, at a press briefing on July 31 said they had been trying for a loan from the bank to be paid to the workers. The plain truth is that the BGMEA did not seem to be serious in its approach to the issue. It could have come up with a salvation package before Eid, given that the workers of the Tuba Group had been agitating for the payment of dues since long before Eid.
The indifferent, less than serious role of the BGMEA in the whole sordid episode brings its sincerity and its reputation into question. Had it played a proactive role in a resolution of the crisis before Eid, conditions would not have come to this pass.