Of rights and pay checks
THE twin disasters of Rana Plaza and Tazreen were a wakeup call, not just for the 5,000-factory strong sector but the government too. There have been talks and roadmaps agreed upon to improving working conditions, fire safety, compliance on building codes, etc. Bangladesh has been in the international spotlight on the issue of workers' right to unionise in the sector too. This is something that has been pushed to the limit by the United States and the country apparently lost its GSP facility due to failure to adhere to agreed upon accords. That is a subject, which is open to debate and beyond the scope of this article. What is of importance is the fact that there is no contention on the need to have a collective bargaining agent on the factory floor whereby workers may seek redress from the management on any issue. The other sticking point remains is the compensation package workers will receive as minimum wage.
National media widely covered the statement issued by the visiting European Commissioner that Bangladesh stands to lose GSP facility to the common market unless substantial improvements were made on issues mentioned above. Leaving aside the potential fallout from such an event taking place in the future, the most pressing problem is the issue of minimum wage. One cannot forget that a national election is looming and it is at times like these that policymakers make wild promises of delivering the sun and the moon and everything in between to woo voters. How else can one explain the statement made by a certain minister that the government was going to declare a minimum wage exceeding Tk8,000 even before the wage board had finished its task? The aftermath of that statement sent shockwaves through the "corridors of power" and the economy faced the full brunt of workers' wrath when that demand was not met. Let there be no confusion here. The wage board constituted by the government was not a standalone decision. It was participatory, in the sense that it took into consideration the opinion of all major stakeholders including the unions and garments manufacturers.
That said much remains to be done on the question of labour standards. In Bangladesh, it is not the problem of having requisite laws; rather it is their lack of enforcement that is the issue. Would unionisation automatically translate into a workers' paradise in the sector. What will be its form? Again, for instance, how practical is it to collect signatures from 30 per cent workers in a company having more than 5,000 workers spread across multiple factories. What is there to stop management from identifying potential labour leaders and axing them from the payroll on one pretext or another? And what happens when angry workers take to the streets, go on a vandalism spree, block the highway, burn factories (e.g. Standard group) and stop production? How helpful is it to portraying the Bangladeshi RMG sector a stable environment to invest in? Let us face certain unfortunate truths. Thanks to the continued "unrest" in the sector, there have been fewer orders coming to Bangladesh for the next quarter. According to a report published in The Financial Express on December 07, some buyers are diverting orders away from Bangladesh to India to meet demands for the summer season.
It is very convenient to form laws or make amendments to existing ones in the hope that the problem will go away. Such ad-hoc measures merely delay the rot, it does not solve anything. With the new minimum wage being implemented, it is imperative to find a way out of the current unrest that has gripped the industry – an industry that employs 4 million people and contributes the lion's share of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
We continue to live in a utopia that allowing for unionisation will get rid of the problem. It is only in the interests of self preservation that the sector should move forward on labour rights. Workers and the unions have a stake in the continued existence of the RMG sector for their livelihoods and the government, being the mediator, must help bridge the gap between these two interest groups. The wage structure is not merely about getting a decent pay at the end of the day. It is tied with worker efficiency and productivity. These are issues that have been sidelined since they are much more difficult to address. Similarly, the enforcement of the building code and having a sufficient pool of factory inspectors to oversee the 5,000 odd factories that constitute the RMG sector has also been put on the backburner. With competitors nipping at the heels of Bangladesh luring away precious orders in the middle of global recession, all stakeholders need to be certain of a workable roadmap that will address the issues at hand.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.