Era of dialogue | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 22, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:18 AM, February 22, 2017

Era of dialogue

ON January 26, 2017, 8:48 pm, Rokeya Khatun wrote: 

“Hello Madam,

Hope you are doing well. Our student life is going very well but, sometimes we are having some problems because we do not have any laptop. We usually do our homework or assignment by using computer in lab. Our professors tell us to submit the assignments by email and sometimes we need to do presentation with the Microsoft PowerPoint. However, after 12 am to 7 am we cannot log into any computer and we cannot bring computer in class. For this kind of situation sometimes we face problem. If we have laptop in our room then we can use it when we need. If it is midnight even anytime we can use it. So, if we get laptop then our student life become easier and we can do our best. Then we will not face any problem.

Thank you,

Rokeya and Sathy.”

We are proud. They want laptops to work on. This is what Sathy and Rokeya have written to me. Both are now studying at the Asian University for Women situated in Chittagong and are having the time of their lives. These two women sat for the admission test and qualified to enter the university. Away from their machines, away from their sewing lines in a readymade garment factory, they are happily in a campus that takes care of them, celebrates their birthdays, looks after their wellbeing and makes them feel at home. A year ago, they were busy working for their homes, earning salaries and feeding mouths that would go hungry without their support. Today, amongst forty other RMG workers in the campus, they too are going through a one-year access course to enter university education. It's definitely a new chapter for female readymade garment workers to dream of a future in education. 

The BGMEA summit kicks off on February 25. An engaged conversation with all parties, including brands, workers and manufacturers is a pre-requisite to make the movement of the summit a success. The industry must move forward and overcome any challenge through dialogue and empathy with all its stakeholders. This is because we have no other choice but to stay united at our end. This is because Bangladesh must remain most relevant amidst all supply challenges through an honest and well meaning conversation between manufacturers and workers both. 

Starting from 384 factories in 1984-85 exporting goods worth USD 31.57 million with only 0.12 million workers, today we have 4,296 factories employing more than four million workers, exporting goods worth more than USD 28 billion. In absence of agglomeration, the factories have sprung up on their own and despite space constraints, have mostly grown around Dhaka (1,976 factories), Gazipur (1,144 factories), Chittagong (705 factories) and Narayanganj (357 factories). The natural growth and ability to foresee and prepare the sector for the next new odd, has pushed the manufacturers to work with an agility that beats all bars. 

While there are risks that accompany growth, we have kept the thread of manufacturing intact. Yes, there have been accusations about elevated social risks owing to disparity, infrastructural risks owing to lack of yardstick, and industrial risks stemming from lack of self-auditing, but 'all' are being addressed this minute. The industry has been able to steer through the minimum wage protests in 2006 which took the level to Tk. 1,662.50 and then got revised to Tk. 3,000 in 2010 and then finally to Tk. 5,300 in 2013. The industry has also faced the challenges of the industrial tragedies of the Spectrum collapse (64 deaths) in 2005, Tazreen fire (112 deaths) and finally Rana Plaza (1,134 deaths). But amidst it all, the industry has also fallen prey to a sandwiched situation of not getting paid enough, which continues to rattle the scenario. Many manufacturers have moved from old locations to new ones with increased production offers and are finding it difficult to find enough work that will feed the workers. In a global scenario, where people buy less apparel and prefer to spend the extra dollars on travel or a restaurant, the race to the bottom has hit the industry. There is today, no alternative to bringing prices up to an acceptable level.

The industry that we serve may not have more margins, may not have the extra icing that it used to have years ago, but we are still bringing food to the table for most of the economy. And while the industry continues to do this, let us also not forget that a contribution of 0.03 percent of export value has today created a Workers Welfare Fund of almost Tk. 200 crores. Let us also not forget that the post-Rana demands on workplace safety have remediated the industry with even health and safety committees identifying and acting on all the health and safety risks.

In spite of lack of space, funds, energy, efficiency, negotiation, and public shaming, the industry has, even recently, moved on to a positive export growth. While we continue our journey through all the hiccups, we need to religiously remember that the only persistent attacks on the industry relate to wages and labour practices. If the minimum wage is not enough and if the take home, after overtime is not enough, the conversation needs to move to the next level. One wonders if wage is a discussion to be had with manufacturers alone or if other stakeholders should also participate and shoulder the responsibility. And in case of unionising, one also needs to wonder if there is an alternative process to increase awareness amongst the workers so that effective unionisation can be implemented in the sector. Instead of expecting instant, fully functional and conducive trade unions overnight, maybe the responsibility to groom workers about their rights and responsibilities should be inked in detail? And just maybe exporters should not be the only ones to be audited? Just maybe the progress and eligibility of functioning trade unions also need to be objectively assessed? 

As the discussion just boils down to labour, and as we stand proud of the sector, I honestly feel that there is no alternative to dialogue. All parties must stay engaged in a positive manner so that the four million plus workers in this sector don't lose their bread and butter and so that the economy also stays afloat. Instead of repeating the discourse on unfair labour practices, the time has come to also realise that a sector that turned around in less than three years, is surely serious about being sustainable. And since labour is an integral part of sustainability, the industry definitely has no plans of moving forward without it. All accusations must be supported with evidence from every party and all penalties must be shouldered by all who trigger unrest. Meanwhile, the industry will continue to be proud of what it has: products and labour.

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

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