Ensure fair wages for RMG workers
Prof Muhammad Yunus speaks at a dialogue on "Savar tragedy, worker welfare and looming economic crisis" organised by Power and Participation Research Centre at Lakeshore Hotel in Dhaka yesterday. Photo: Amran hossain
Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus yesterday called for fair wages for garments workers which would allow them to lead decent lives.
“We do not want to build our nation on slavery -- but on our skills and our intellect.”
The remark comes following a recent comment by Pope Francis on the minimum wage for the country's apparel industry workers: it currently stands at $40 a month, which the Pope deemed to be akin to “slave labour”.
Yunus said the garment sector -- currently the second largest destination in the world for apparel sourcing -- is the country's first entrepreneurial success.
“So let us not allow them [the garment workers] to work as slaves -- it is our first and foremost responsibility, and we have to perform it right,” he said.
Yunus's comments came at a dialogue on the steps to take following the Savar tragedy, organised by Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) at the capital's Lakeshore Hotel.
Rana Plaza, a nine-storey multi-purpose building in Savar collapsed on April 24, killing 1,127 and injuring thousands, to make it the worst ever industrial accident in the history of the nation.
A tragedy of this magnitude should be an eye-opener for the nation and all should unite to decide on the corrective measures to take to prevent recurrence of such incidents, he said.
“If our realisation does not come after such a big incident then it is a shame for our national life."
The Nobel Laureate called for self-criticism to find faults and put an end to the blame game, which does “no one any good”.
"We have learnt a lot. If there is anything wrong, we will rectify that. But we should not forget the core -- we want to protect the workers, the industry and Bangladesh. We have to address them all together.”
Yunus said the 40 lakh females who work in the garment industry do not only bring about improvement in their lives but also contribute to the nation's advancement.
"I think these workers have established the foundation of modern Bangladesh. Let us make the base of modern Bangladesh stronger -- not weaker.”
He said the immediate task should be to consolidate its current position as the second biggest apparel exporting country in the world. “The first target should be to retain the current position and become the number one in the shortest possible time.”
The Nobel laureate also called for contribution from the buyers to ensure a decent wage for the workers.
"We have to remind our business partners that we have become connected with global capitalism through them. Hence, our workers are the workers of global market, not just of Bangladesh. They deserve to get wages in line with the global market standard."
“It is our duty to remind them about this and try to realise that demand. I believe we can gradually achieve it if we remain firm on our principles.”
Yunus said he has already contacted with the founder of Transparency International to see if there is scope to set up a transparency index for the garment industry, focussing on the minimum wages of the workers the world over.
“The index will not be just for Bangladesh but for all apparel producing nations. This minimum wage will be the base, and those who come to do business with us can not pay less than that. It will be non-negotiable."
He hopes the idea will be materialised soon.
Dan Mozena, the ambassador of US to Bangladesh, said the recent accidents and death of workers have created grave concerns for his nation.
"This must be a moment of transformation for Bangladesh," he said, while calling for workers' rights to form trade unions, ensure fire safety and structural soundness of factories.”
Prof Rehman Sobhan, chairman of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) said the building collapse was an outcome of serious governance failure. “We the civil society was not serious about the crisis of the RMG [readymade garment] sector. We should be realistic to solve the problem; rather than be romantic.”
Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury, vice-chancellor of University of Asia Pacific, said there are laws and policies relating to building construction, but there is lack of implementation.
"Even the government is not following the directive of the High Court," he said citing a High Court directive in 2005.
Andrew Barnard, first secretary of the European Union Delegation in Bangladesh, read out the message of Ambassador William Hanna.
“The Ashulia fire and the Savar disaster are too high a price to pay. The sort of development which does not respect basic human rights is unsustainable, and the EU wants to play its part in putting an end to it.”
He warned that the EU is considering punitive actions through the generalised system of preference.
“It is up to Bangladesh to come up with the solutions. We are ready -- and will always be -- to assist you in this.”
Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of CPD, called for an end to the “hypocrisy” between ethical buying and ethical sourcing. “Representatives of sourcing firms do not want to pay higher for clothes when entrepreneurs demand higher price.”
“It is not time to be defensive from the owners side; rather we should carry out our responsibilities,” said Rubana Huq, managing director of Mohammadi Group, while suggesting either relocation or closure of the 1,200-odd non-compliant factories.
Nazma Akter, president of Sammilito Garment Workers' Federation, urged responsible buying from global apparel companies.
“The multinationals can provide 'buy one get one free' offers for their consumers due to the competitive wage in Bangladesh. They ask us to ensure ethical business, yet they insist on price cuts from us -- it should not be like that.”
Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of PPRC, said follow-up actions are needed for all the steps the government is currently taking.