The government has set a target to earn US$50 billion from readymade garments (RMG) by the year 2021. While that sounds very nice, little has been done to address the great shortage in skilled manpower that is already plaguing the sector. Indeed, going by a report prepared by the Directorate of Textile (DoT), Bangladesh had a shortage of about 110,000 people in RMG in 2014 and this gap is set to increase to about 180,000 by the year 2021. Reportedly, the RMG sector employs some 20,000 foreign nationals in various positions in the sector and they are mostly from India and Sri Lanka. As the shortage increases in the coming years, it is expected that the bulk of the shortage will be addressed by employing more foreign nationals. Needless to say, this is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs.
With Bangladesh emerging as the second largest apparels producer in the world, expansion of the manufacturing base has not been matched by a growth in human resources. This is all too evident in the slow pace of implementing a government plan to set up around two dozen textile engineering colleges and vocational institutes, which once operational, would go a long way to producing the requisite number of textile engineers and technologists the textile industry requires. Given that a dearth of 25 percent exists in the skilled category, the RMG sector has had to resort to employing foreign workers. This in itself is a stop gap measure and ends up costing the industry much more than it would, had there been local talent available.
Without an abundant pool of trained workers, the industry cannot evolve and it cannot upgrade. Although it has been pointed out by RMG industry leaders that it will take Vietnam (currently in 2nd place in the RMG world order) another decade to match Bangladesh in manufacturing prowess and contest our position, one cannot forget that Vietnam is party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Bangladesh is not. If we are, for whatever reason, unable to get on board the TPP, which is coming up for renegotiation with the United States at the end of the month, we will have to contend with Vietnam in 5 to 10 years time (since that country will have duty free access to the US market and we will not). We should not, however, take comfort in that timeline and take a breather from what needs to be done today.
Unless policymakers wake up to the realities on the ground, i.e. without addressing the massive shortage of labour (both semi and skilled), the industry cannot live up to its full potential. As pointed out in the DoT report that draws data from Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exports Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (KBMEA) and the Bangladesh Textile Mills Association (BTMA), the shortage of workers will grow from the present 0.11 million to 0.18 million in 2021 and the $50 billion a year export target could very well remain a pipedream. There are only so many foreign workers the sector can afford to hire. We need to develop our own human resources and not rely on expensive expatriate workers to maintain our edge in the export market. The current policy of hiring foreign workers will become more and more financially unviable as time goes by.
The low level of education of our workers is directly correlated to the low level of productivity. Without better education and technical training, we lose our edge. What is there not to understand? Yet, as always, it appears to take policymakers ages to come to terms with ground realities and get a move on, on the obvious course of action. We need to stop making plans and start implementing. Setting up a technical institute requires not only budgetary allocation but the sourcing of technical instructors. If we are lacking in that field, perhaps we should start thinking sincerely about foreign technical assistance, say from countries like Japan or Korea or even mainland China. Given proper prioritisation, setting up these schools and institutes is possible within a stated timeframe. It is not rocket science.
Although it has been pointed out that the country is sorely lacking in infrastructure, raw materials political stability, etc., this is one sector that has surmounted seemingly insurmountable odds to put Bangladesh on the world map. It employs 4 million or so workers (mostly women) and indirectly supports 10 million people. Despite all the negative media attention it has received on workers' rights and safety issues, we simply cannot allow for the RMG sector to go down as it is also the largest foreign exchange earner in the economy.
Addressing the major bottlenecks like infrastructure is a mid to long-term affair. The industry has responded fairly well on the issue of compliance, but at the end of the day, without a trained and efficient workforce to power industry, RMG doesn't have much of a bright future. It is only in our own interests that we invest in education so that one day the RMG sector can move out up from producing basic low-cost garments to the high-end market niches which entail higher value addition. When that happens, the $50 billion per annum target will no longer be a pipedream.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.