Backward looking owners of a forward looking industry
WE cannot support the vandalism that the workers of some garment factories of Bangladesh have indulged in, in the last few days. For several days now important highways have been blocked and hundreds of cars, buses and trucks have been set on fire by wayward garment workers.
However, BGMEA and others cannot avert the blame that the present spate of violence has been triggered by their offer of Tk.600 pay raise to the Wage Board which is trying to fix new wages for the RMG sector workers.
While the owners are right in saying that vandalism will not get the workers their pay rise and only negotiations will, yet it must be said that the mindset revealed by the owners in the Tk.600 offer forced the workers to conclude that without some bigger action their demands will not be realised.
It boggles the mind, and we have carried several pieces on it already, is how such a pittance could have been offered in the first place. To make it sound respectable BGMEA said they were offering a 20% raise. Given an already low level of Tk.3,000, the 20% amounts to only Tk.600, making for a total of Tk. 3,600. How can this be living wage for anybody who has to pay for lodging, food, transport, medical and necessary family expenses?
We fully endorse the CPD recommendation that the starting wage for a RMG sector worker should be Tk.6,560 to be increased to Tk. 8,200 on completion of one year satisfactory service, which in dollar terms amount to just about $ 100, making for a daily wage of around $3. We consider such a minimum wage to be feasible, and a win-win proposition for both sides.
BGMEA's position has always been that high wages will compromise our competitiveness and thereby destroy the industry. This may have been true at some point in the past. Now the reality is that it will be the absence of a reasonable wage for the workers which will compromise our competitiveness and destroy the industry.
It is our view that BGMEA members are stuck in a time warp. They have not evolved with time and are stuck in the thinking that labour is the place where the squeeze has to be the maximum and everywhere else expenses can be adjusted.
It is now a proven fact, in Bangladesh as in everywhere else in the world, that better pay for the workers inevitably results in better profit for the owners. In Bangladesh, those garment factories which are fully compliant with international standards of working condition and those who pay higher salaries are among the more successful companies in the country. It is they who are getting orders from abroad, it is they who are growing faster than others and it is they who have the best prospect for future growth.
With such overwhelming evidence all around, it is incomprehensible that BGMEA should have chosen the path of confrontation with the workers instead of co-operation.
As more and more workers take to the streets their discipline will slacken and propensity to go for such demonstration will increase. Therefore, it will be wise on the part of BGMEA to solve the existing wage issue expeditiously so that workers are still able to trust the owners rather than feel that they will always need to indulge in indiscipline to gain their rights.
What has amazed us further is the 'discovery' of "national and international" conspiracy by BGMEA leaders, whose purpose, according to them, is to instigate the workers in order to damage the image of our RMG sector. They identified BBC and vernacular daily Prothom Alo as the main culprits, as the former had broadcast a TV programme depicting the miserable state of garment workers and the latter compared garment workers' salary with other sectors and pointed out that it was among the lowest in the country.
What amazes us further is that BGMEA leaders are all seasoned travellers and, since almost all of them sell their products in the US or in Europe, they are necessarily well versed in the practices of western and other free and independent media. So how could they have called the BBC and Prothom Alo reports as "conspiracies"? They could have termed them "inaccurate," "incomplete," "one-sided," "biased" and sent a "rejoinder" or "clarification."
The mindset revealed in terming BBC, one of the most respected and trusted names in international journalism, and Prothom Alo, by far the biggest and trusted newspaper in the country, as "conspirators" is one that is myopic, closed, intolerant of criticism, unwilling to accept their own faults and unable to take responsibility for their own shortcomings.
For many years now we have been hearing BGMEA or their likes term every criticism against them as "conspiracies." Every time the workers demonstrate for their rights, their pay, improvement of their working conditions, it is termed as a "conspiracy." If our garments owners had accepted even a part of the criticism and acted on them, they would have been in a far better situation than now. By terming criticisms as false, they act like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand and thinking that the world can't see them.
Why do buyers have to insist about fire safety, about well constructed factories, about fire exits and the like? Why can't we do these things on our own? I am sure many of the garments owners did and do. But there are many others—in fact too many of them—who don't. It is this delinquent group that is bringing disrepute to the industry.
We salute our garment factory owners for creating such a huge export business for the country earning billions. They also deserve our praise for creating such a huge employment market, and bringing about near revolutionary changes in many aspects. But they must also acknowledge that they pay only 0.8% tax when all other business houses pay 40% corporate tax. This sector has been given many types of regulatory and financial benefits precisely for the above mentioned benefits they brought to the country.
While we give them their due praise we must simultaneously point out that the workers are their partners in creating their turnover, gross income and finally the profit, which, judging by their houses, cars, lifestyle, etc., have been considerable.
There is no question of grudging their wealth as most of them have earned it through hard work, but there definitely is the question of paying reasonable wages for the very workers who help to create their wealth.
With the prospect of exponential growth in this sector, and with Bangladesh poised for embarking on its growth trajectory, the BGMEA is being extremely shortsighted in refusing to accept the stark and fundamental reality that the wages being offered to the workers are not acceptable.
The continued unrest in the RMG sector, and we will not negate the possibility that part of it could be politically instigated, will not do the owners any good, as it will not do any good to the workers either. We urge the owners to be the true forward looking captains of what is definitely one of the most forward looking and prospective industry that the country has at the moment.
The writer is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.