LET'S call him 'X'. It was 11 pm. A few days ago, a private television channel was running news on the non-payment of the salary and bonus of the readymade garment workers. The face was a familiar one. In fact, the gentleman, Mr. X, confined to the BGMEA office when speaking to the journalists, was an old friend who had taught me production processes and familiarised me with the trade eighteen years back, when I first joined the industry. He was also one of the few engineers chosen by Desh garments to have been sent to Korea for training nearly thirty-five years ago. An outstanding student, an extremely talented man, a devout Muslim, this man was on the television screen being featured as a violator.
The history behind his failure in garments stems mostly from short shipment. As a practice and law, the readymade garment industry imports fabric and accessories against a declaration of utilisation (UD). This determines how much fabric is being used for how many pieces and how many accessories are needed to produce the declared quantity of garments ordered by the buyer. In general, 5% over or short shipments are allowed in the trade. Many owners incentivise over shipment and many even penalise short shipment. These are all unwritten rules that are practiced in RMG.
This gentleman that your columnist is writing about shipped short most of the time. The authorities automatically penalise short shipment and impose almost a 150% tax on the un-exported fabric and accessories. This is how a factory incurring short shipment goes into distress. In most cases factories short ship when they have quality issues with the fabric or the garments. No one ships short because they want to. No one ships short because there is no advantage in selling these garments in the open market against the huge penalty imposed by customs. So, short shipment becomes the killer. In the case that we are discussing, another factory belonging to the same owner was burnt down a few years ago. That also triggered the failure of Mr. X's group.
Mr. X's factory sits right in the heart of Kawran Bazar, which happens to be a media hub. In fact, his factory sits right opposite to two of the most popular television channels. Anytime anything happens in the factory, the story gets covered at lightning speed. A few days back, a fire broke out in the next building and the signboard of the factory caught fire, but did not cause any damage to the factory floors. That incident, which had nothing to do with any oversight or malpractice in the factory, got reported and two channels carried the story in the format of breaking news. Mr. X and we once shared the same group name, as we were partners once. The story spread like fire, and in no time I was receiving calls enquiring if it was ours. I had to personally call the channels and request them to correct the tickers. This is what media panic does to us. Instead of being by his side, the first thing I did was to protect my own name. And then the rest followed.
The same thing happened when I saw him the other night when he was detained at BGMEA and workers had surrounded the building along with a few labour leaders. Instead of rushing to be by his side, I calculated the media risks of exposure if any of us went to join him at BGMEA. This is how fear brings out the worst in us.
Truth be told, none of us enjoy being featured as bad apples in the media. Honestly, I know of no owner who would enjoy seeing his name get tarnished on screen or print. I know of no owner who would risk such an attack. I know of no owner who would intentionally try and pack his profit sack and deprive the workers during Eid at the cost of being blamed by the society. It doesn't, however, indicate that all RMG owners treat their workers fairly. There may be many who remain immune to public shaming and could not care less about workers. But then, let them be identified. If the industrial police could submit a full report last month to the Home Ministry and the Labour Ministry, and warn them about the possible unrest in 506 garment factories over wages and bonus before Eid and if, a month ago, the Special Branch (SB) of police submitted a report to the state minister for home affairs, also saying that the wages in 124 garment factories in Narayanganj, Ashulia, Savar, Tongi and other places hadn't been paid, couldn't meetings be organised with these 600+ factories in the presence of the local labour leaders and couldn't we have done some contingency planning from June itself? Instead of having talk shows and seminars on the “possibility” of non-payment of wages and bonus, couldn't the concerned authorities have taken a few steps to avoid this tragedy right before Eid and finally push the workers to go back home empty handed? Couldn't the defaulters or violators be identified from before and dealt with accordingly?
I am certainly not an apologist for the garment industry. But watching the industry being ripped to pieces, in spite of many success stories, doesn't help. If there are well-meaning Mr. X's in the sector who may need a little support from the bank and the government, let's identify them. If there are Mr. Y's or Mr. Z's in the sector who “have a tendency” to deprive the workers, as alleged by a local think tank, then let's collectively see them getting punished. But let's not over- generalise the issue at the last minute. In all honesty, BGMEA may address the media and assure payment by a specific date, the government may issue directives relating to on-time payment of wages and bonus, but that doesn't help the unpaid workers who surround BGMEA for days and then finally return empty handed.
Mr. X, Y, or Z may continue being detained in the police station or in BGMEA, but that doesn't help in reality. The reality check has to come from within the industry leaders in collaboration with the government, who would need to devise a way to help the sick, aid the promising and punish the deviants. And this should be done now and not only during the days before the next Qurbani Eid when the next round of protests from the workers' end will again rock the mass and the media.
The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.