Confronting the challenges of unskilled workforce in RMG
Over the last few years, the participation of female workers in our ready-made garments (RMG) industry has been on the decline. A survey by the Asian Centre for Development reported that 65 percent of workers in the sector were women. Also, as indicated by Farole and Cho in their study, men now make up around 54 percent of the labour force in this industry, in contrast to the oft-repeated statistic that women comprised 80 percent of the labour force. There is no concrete evidence as to why the participation of female labour is decreasing. One reason may be that a positive change has been taking place in the industry as new capital investments have been made—a shift from manual labour to automation. Introduction of more advanced technologies is the current demand of the global supply chain, and as such, large garment companies in Bangladesh have adapted to this change for the sake of quality garments and mass production. Technology is in the process of replacing labour, and dependency on automation has resulted in the reduction of the size of the workforce. This could explain why many workers, perhaps disproportionately women, are removed from the workforce. Such a development raises concerns about our efforts to improve the skills of RMG workforce, particularly women workers who have limited job availability. In this context, I would like to focus on (1) what resources are available to address the deficiency of skills, and (2) what kind of challenges the stakeholders usually face.
While the sector's growth remains healthy, there has been a serious concern over the low labour productivity compared to competing countries. Whereas each garment worker accounts for USD 7,000 in export in Vietnam, the figure is closer to USD 5,300 in Bangladesh, some 30 percent lower. The second largest exporter of garments in the world is also the second-lowest in labour productivity. Bangladesh's per-hour labour productivity was valued at USD 3.4 in 2018. On the other hand, Bangladesh's competitors in the world of RMG—such as Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and China—were valued at USD 4.7, USD 7.5, USD 7.7, USD 4.1, USD 15.9, and USD 11.1 respectively. Addressing this shortage of skilled labour, a number of initiatives have been taken by public and private stakeholders, independently and collaboratively, at different times.
Large garment companies are dealing with skills deficiency by setting up training centres on their factory premises or outside. A number of projects have been introduced by different stakeholders in order to mitigate the situation of unavailability of skilled workforce. Some of the initiatives can be mentioned here. The Center of Excellence for Bangladesh Apparel Industry (CEBAI) was established in 2014 by BGMEA with the support of SIDA, H&M, and ILO. The centre provides training based on curricula developed by the National Technical and Vocational Qualification Framework. With the support of the government of Bangladesh, development partners and owners' associations, different skills development programmes have been launched for garment workers and management across the country. Another programme, "Sudokho", implemented by Swisscontact, British Council, and executed by the Directorate of Technical Education (DTE) and government of Bangladesh, provides industry-based training to the RMG sector. BRAC and H&M have undertaken a project known as STITCH (Safeguarding Through Technology and Innovation Challenge). Many other development organisations are also engaged in projects focused on upgradation of skills.
Obviously, these projects have reduced the burden but challenges remain, which is very normal. These initiatives focus more on the immediate need of providing training and business outcomes, ignoring the long-term need of capacity building (educated workforce) to absorb training and adapt with advanced technology as well as institutional development. A certain level of basic education is required for the garment workers to attain the skills needed in today's factories. Without basic education, sometimes they are not in a position to digest the knowledge they receive from different trainings. The mean year of schooling of Bangladeshi garment workers is 5.9 and only 16.9 percent of workers completed grade 10 and above, as explored in a research project by Kabeer and her team. Due to the lack of minimum education, workers are unable to get the most out of trainings to develop their skills. The frustration of a factory owner was thus expressed in one of my studies: "Workers are almost ignorant; it is often difficult for them to have the benefits of training. We offer different services for them but they are not yet ready to use them because they don't have the minimum education. We are moving to automation and also to produce high-end, complicated garments. For that you need skilled workers but we have a limited supply of educated skilled workers."
Another challenge is the sustainability of projects regardless of the skills development programmes. More than a hundred supply chain initiatives have been brought into the Bangladesh RMG industry by different stakeholders particularly after the Rana Plaza tragedy to improve the social, economic and environmental conditions of factories. But how many of them ensure sustainability? To understand the scalability of projects, I, along with my team members, as part of a global research project, studied the challenges factory management faced in dealing with initiatives offered by different agents. These challenges include project development without understanding local contexts, absence of space for supplier, less follow-up, project duplication, no or less incentive from buyers, resistance to change from workers and mid-level management, miscalculation of ROI (Return on Investment), factory selection error, etc.
Now, what can be done to respond to these challenges? We understand that a structural problem like enhancing the education level of workers cannot be eradicated overnight. Despite a number of measures taken to enrich the quality of education as prescribed in SDG, a leadership role needs to be executed by the state to link our education system with the industry. Supportive public policy is not enough. Rather, systematic implementation of policy to improve the relationship between TVET institutions and industry can make an impact. We have to create a space for the industry to participate in designing curriculum and training, aligning them with market needs and changing technology. Experts from the relevant fields can share their knowledge to build up a concrete long-term strategy.
Our research recommends that for the sake of sustainability of a project, the buyers should systematically reward more sustainable suppliers and the initiators need to target beyond "cream" factories and cater to factories that are more likely to benefit from interventions. Despite the business case rhetoric, the main motivation to join a project is to please buyers. As one manager put it, "To say no to a brand is difficult. You know the customer is the master." The buyer-driven logic is apparent for ostensibly voluntary capacity-building initiatives, very much like auditing. The suppliers should be given open space to consider an initiative and seek help in measuring impact, and should ask brands to publicly recognise engagement in sustainability efforts. For the donors of projects, the effort should be to reduce overlapping and duplication of projects, and prioritise initiatives that are coordinating or consolidating with other initiatives. There is no way to deny the impact of some projects but what is missing in the process is the institutionalisation of good practices which is critical for a sustainable export-oriented industry.
Shahidur Rahman, PhD, teaches at BRAC University and is the author of "The Bangladesh Garment Industry and the Global Garment Supply Chain: Choices and Constraints of Management."