Onus on owners | The Daily Star
12:53 AM, September 26, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:01 AM, September 26, 2013

News Analysis

Onus on owners

The recent troubles in the readymade garment sector had been coming for a long time. Not that they had ever gone away – they were just festering following previous bouts of flashes and gathering strength.
The crux of the troubles in fact dates back to the birth of our garment industry in the 1980s. Growing in the shadow of the Sri Lankan civil war, our industry was based on a few fragile factors.
For one, it was heavily dependent on an abundance of cheap labour, mostly illiterate. The industry looked towards government support, direct and indirect, such as currency devaluation, tax benefits and cash incentives.
For another, as the industry grew exponentially, its dependence on cheap labour remained unchanged. Its management, labour standards and technology either did not improve or improved little.
The industry grew in a roguish manner as its owners became powerful in society, enough to control politics and bend rules. Finally, it became a rogue industry itself defying rules and regulations, an industry that little values human rights and dignity and gives a damn to the environment.
This is exactly why we find our Mercedes-riding garment owners offering to raise wages of workers only by Tk 600 --- to Tk 3,600! When the last wages were set at Tk 3,000, that was a low base. Since then we have seen runaway inflation and yet the owners could not feel the heat of it. Probably they live above the leaping price flames. It also reflected on how little they sympathise with their workers.
And now we also see the workers reciprocating the owners' mindless decision by going berserk and creating anarchy.  How much can we blame the workers for this outrage?
In the past we have seen how mindlessly the workers have been dealt with. One after another, buildings have collapsed and caught fire, leading to innumerable deaths and mutilations.
And after every accident, BGMEA, the garment owners' organization, has acted in a most heartless manner. After each accident, BGMEA tried to protect the owners, bemoaning more about how much the owners had suffered in losses than in how innocent lives and families had perished.
After the Tazreen fire in which 112 workers died, BGMEA did its best to save the factory owners. Then it promised to de-list 600 non-functional factories, something it never did for two reasons. First, these substandard factories did cheap stitching for the big owners and, second, these factories as members of BGMEA cast votes in the association's last elections.
BGMEA conducted some drives in a few factories but these were only an eyewash as it only advised on improving safety standards.
The injured and the relatives of the dead did not receive adequate compensation. The relatives of those who died and were identified got only three month's salaries and Tk 7 lakh.
BGMEA was supposed to set up a foundation to look after the children of those who had died. Nothing was done. The list can go on.
After the Rana Plaza disaster, BGMEA's role was no better. Several leaders have told this writer personally that every year 4,000 people die in road accidents. So why are we raising so much hue and cry in the media over the deaths of 1,100 workers? We could only shudder at the insensitivity and grossness of their thinking.
BGMEA could not even give the exact number of people working in the Rana Plaza factories.
The money that BGMEA  gave for the victims was far less than what other organizations did together. However, it was only because of the outrage caused globally that the Rana Plaza victims got better compensations.
Such abysmally low standards in environment, working conditions and wages for an exporting sector have bred only bitter workers. Illiterate and rankled, these workers have become a Frankenstein of the industry's own making. Their productivity is low (35 percent in Bangladesh compared to 80 percent in Vietnam and China). They are the worst paid workers in the category across all garment exporting countries.
All together, the garment industry is today caught in a deadly concoction that the owners cannot realize. All they are capable of doing is seeing conspiracy behind every action, either by the workers or the media. The latest attack on the media by SM Mannan, acting President of BGMEA, for what he said was putting up false and motivated stories of low wages and long working hours is just a reflection of how the garment owners are suffering from myopic vision. Mannan just wants to shift his own blame on to others instead of realizing that a modern industry cannot survive on outdated management styles, especially with a force of 3.6 million illiterate, half-hungry workers.
And the industry must realize that other countries like Vietnam and Myanmar are gearing up their capacity. And Vietnam is likely to get GSP facilities from the US.
All this only rings the bell, loud and clear, for urgent action.

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