DURING my recent visit to the United States, I visited several renowned department stores in Connecticut and Maryland. I am very proud to say that all the stores had very large collections of clothes made in Bangladesh. It has always been my pleasure to buy clothes made in Bangladesh. For unknown reasons, many people of Bangladeshi origin avoid buying home made products. Gifts are not often appreciated at home if they are made in Bangladesh.
It may be noted here that the demand for Bangladeshi garments has increased steadily over the last three years even though we were made to believe that the poor safety and working conditions of the garment industry would have an adverse effect on our exports. After the Rana Plaza and the Tazreen tragedies, both the government and the factory owners took special measures to improve safety in factories and increase wages of workers. Though these measures are not adequate by international standards, it is apparent that such issues have had little impact on the demand of our products abroad. Why so?
I met by chance an American professor of journalism and communications who teaches at a renowned university in Connecticut. He is, by the way, a great admirer of Dr. Muhammad Yunus. He said that while teaching a course on communications, he asked his students to debate whether they should buy Bangladeshi garments or not in view of the workers' low wages and poor working conditions prevailing in the country. Some students opined that they should boycott Bangladeshi products until the conditions of the workers were improved. Others argued that if they stopped buying, the situation would further deteriorate due to financial constraints and the whole exercise would be counterproductive.
At the end of the debate, the professor asked the students to vote. He was pleased to inform me that the majority of the students voted in favour of buying Bangladeshi products. The students later explained that they did not care where a product was made in. They would buy any product from any country if the quality is good and the price reasonable.
This explains why Bangladesh has been able to expand its market in the States and also in Europe. This should not, however, make us complacent since the demand alone cannot guarantee a safe future for our garment industry. Unless the conditions of the workers are improved significantly, the growing resentment among them can make the industry vulnerable at any time. All resentments cannot always be explained by conspiracy theories. We must address the real issues seriously and urgently and not try to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.
The writer is a former chief engineer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.