We need to take care of our garments sector | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 27, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 27, 2007

We need to take care of our garments sector

We are again observing labour unrest in many ready-made garments (RMG) factories this year as well. Last year, around May-June, we had noticed disagreements between workers and management in number of RMG factories on issues like low pay scale, working environment, etc. At one point of time, the disagreements and dissatisfaction turned into violence and pandemonium.
We saw a series of vandalism and destruction. The garment factories were badly attacked time and again. Even the large foreign RMG manufacturers, which have been operating in various export processing zones (EPZs) for more than two decades had also become the victims of the violence. For example, large and reputed RMG manufacturers like SQ group, Opex group, and Youngone could not save themselves from these vicious and destructive actions.
Very recently we have observed the same movement against Nassa group, one of the biggest RMG exporters of our country. This widespread violence has compelled us to focus on certain key issues. Time is running out fast for taking corrective measures and appropriate actions.
There is no way of denying that there are several justified reasons for workers' dissatisfaction in the RMG industry. One of the primary factors is poor pay scale to the workers. In a number of factories workers do not get their wages regularly. Many factories practice long working hours without providing adequate overtime to the workers.
In many factories the workers also face hazardous work environments and the management is negligent towards issues like workers' safety and physical comfort. In many cases, the factories lack adequate safety measurements. Hence, in last few years we have witnessed a number of terrible fire accidents as well as collapses of factory buildings.
There are also complains against the supervisors and managers for manhandling the workers. Even cases of sexual harassment are not unheard of. If we look at various survey results, we can see that the workers have chosen the owners over the management or preferred the production manager to the supervisor. We have also seen cases of inhuman activities by the security guards of the factories.
One can understand that the recent protests of the workers are accumulation of years long deprivation and resentment. The problems not addressed for many years have now multiplied into many folds and put us in a dire state. Only recently the leaders of the RMG sector and the business community have finally realised the severity of the crisis.
They have assured us that they would take immediate measures to solve the problems. The business leaders have to keep their promises, or else the RMG industry of Bangladesh will be destroyed within a short time. However, the reality is despite having sincere intention, it is not possible to resolve all the years of impediments over-night.
Many world-class RMG factories are present in Bangladesh besides the above-mentioned ill practiced factories. With the changing circumstances and pressure from buyers the number of such world-class factories is increasing day by day.
Even if we empathise with the deprivation of the RMG workers, we cannot ignore the larger picture, the contribution of the RMG industry to our economy. The little small-scale industry that started its journey in late seventies has now become the backbone of the economy of our country. This industry alone contributes about 75% of our total exports. In the last financial year the total export volume of the RMG sector was more than $9.5 billion.
More than two million workers are employed in nearly four thousand factories, not to talk of the millions dependent on this industry segment. Although we fully agree with the workers' demand for justice, we cannot also ignore the fact that many poor workers were able to change their fortune due to the development of RMG industry. Though we have a long way to set appropriate pay scales for the workers, but the growth of RMG industry is crucial for employment generation of the workers.
In one hand, we need insightful and visionary entrepreneurs to develop an industry; on the other hand, we also need skilled and sensible workers. The entrepreneurs and workers need to complement each other. The workers cannot achieve their rights by vandalism and destruction; rather these activities will impede the growth of the industry and narrow the employment opportunities of the workers.
The RMG Industry of Bangladesh has come a long way. This industry has proved that it can sustain competition despite negative predictions of many industry experts and foreign agencies. The credit of this success goes to both the entrepreneurs and the workers. If any disagreement exists on this issue we need to eliminate that.
On the contrary, if the workers select the means of anarchism and obliteration to fulfill their demands, it will annihilate the whole industry. The results of these activities will not be beneficial to either party. The RMG industry has become very competitive in the quota free era. To counter the competition we need to increase our productivity and reduce costs simultaneously.
It is also necessary to deliver goods at the right time. Or else we cannot survive in this business. We all know that we mainly export to the discount stores of Europe and North America. The volumes of retail sales have been decreasing due to reductions in consumer demand in North America from the end of last year. The recent economic turmoil caused by the problems in US "sub prime" mortgage market has worsened the scenario. At present situation, the key to survival is to increase productivity and reduce costs. Meanwhile, we should also try to export high-end or designer dresses to capture the "up market."
The labour leaders should realise these hard facts and reality. By anarchism and vandalism we will not only lose existing business opportunities but will also disgrace the image of our country to the foreign investors as well as buyers of RMG (recent TESCO news in The Independent of London carries enough testimony to that effect).
The time has come for all concerned to comprehend the overall scenario. Our capabilities in RMG have been appreciated in various markets of the world. We have withstood MFA cut-off and recaptured the volume of business that we were losing to China and India earlier by proving our skills. Moreover, the reputed apparel houses like GAP, Van Heusen, and Levis have relocated bulk business from Latin America to Bangladesh.
Still the Bangladeshi entrepreneurs are hard pressed to continue their business activities for various uncontrollable factors. This current anarchy will make the future of our RMG industry bleak. As a result, the employment opportunities of numerous workers will be uncertain.
The anarchy in the RMG industry is not any separate event in context to the overall socio-economic scenario of our country. The recent anarchy is the reflection of the overall instability and insecurity caused by uneven allocation of resources in the social, political and economical domains of our country. In the recent undesirable campus events we have observed more menacing movements by way-ward youths and vagabonds rather than the students; likewise it appeared from the television footage that the similar kind of evil forces might also be engaged in the recent turmoil in the RMG sector.
The writer didn't see any women workers, though they represent more than 80 pct of the garments sector's workforce. In some cases the "so called" unrealistic free labour movement also instigated the fire. Rivalry among the competitors had not helped the situation either. The conscious segment of our country should be vocal against these evil forces for protecting the interests of the RMG industry.
Violence and aggression will bring disasters not only for the few entrepreneurs but also for the poor and disadvantaged section of our population, not to talk of the entire country. So, my appeal to the government, political and social leaders would be to come forward with concerted efforts to safeguard our RMG industry.
The writer is a columnist.

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