The tale of the three million female workers in the readymade garment industry is an unbeatable narrative of toil and survival. As a woman, I have a soft spot for the women who work in the industry. They are far smarter than I ever was. They have more courage than I ever had. They have more persistence than I ever dreamt of. They are the face of the unsung heroes while I sit in my own elite bubble and enjoy a privileged life.
They are who we are proud of; they are the ones who make and unmake us. The RMG sector cannot afford to fail as its collapse will trigger an instant breakdown of the social fabric of the entire society. The industry has laid the ground for millions of women to dream of a better future.
However, this future is now under discussion. Last June, in Geneva, the International Labour Conference (ILC) adopted a 'special paragraph' (a designation given to countries for failing to comply with their obligations under an ILO convention) on Bangladesh on grounds of serious concern over anti-union activities in the country, and the state of freedom of association in the EPZ. The May-June 2016 session of the ILC added the special paragraphs for two countries: Bangladesh and El Salvador.
Our country has been put in the same category as El Salvador, a country where children are engaged in the worst forms of child labour, including in the harvesting of sugarcane and in illicit activities resulting in human trafficking. The government there is yet to enforce child labour laws, and no penalties for child labour violations were issued in 2015. Male child labour there comprises approximately three-fourths of child labourers aged 5 to 17. Approximately 50 percent of sex trafficking victims in El Salvador are girls between ages 13 and 18. A report of Human Rights Watch details hazardous child labour in the sugarcane industry, and it also claims that children use machetes and other sharp knives to cut sugarcane and strip leaves off the stalks for over nine hours every day in the scorching sun, and often have machete gashes on their hands and legs. Similar abuses are reported in coffee, fireworks and shellfish industries. That we have been put on the same level as El Salvador and that there is a persistent perception of Bangladesh RMG industry abusing rights of labourers, is deeply troubling.
There are many other problematic stories in the world to report. But Bangladesh's RMG industry definitely does not want to join the ranks with countries that falter during the journey. Cambodia, which currently enjoys EU's GSP, namely under the Everything But Arms scheme, exporting garment and textile exports amounting to roughly USD 4.96 billion in 2013 and USD 5.7 billion in 2014, still carries the label of discriminatory and exploitative labour conditions, which include existence of short-term contracts, poor government labour inspection and enforcement, and aggressive tactics against independent unions. Cambodia has also experienced repeated episodes of workers fainting on the job. In January 2014, law enforcing agencies brutally crushed industry-wide protests for a higher minimum wage while authorities introduced more complicated union registration procedures. Women workers there face pregnancy-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and denial of maternity benefits.
Even Myanmar, which continues to enjoy trade advantages with the EU and has exported garments amounting USD 1.46 billion in 2015 with EU imports of clothing from Myanmar totalling worth 432 million euros that year (up 80 percent year on year), has labour issues along with the persecution of Rohingyas, which runs contrary to the EU strategy as adopted by the Council at its 3477th meeting held on June 20, 2016.
Vietnam, too, enjoys trade preferences with the EU under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences. But it also hosts horror stories of having over 30,000 men, women, and children, being held against their will in state-run detention centres, who are forced to work and beaten all in the name of “drug treatment,” as victims are apparently drug addicts held for periods of two to four years without ever receiving a hearing or a trial in a court of law. These detainees are mostly forced to work under harsh conditions for little or no pay for sewing t-shirts or mosquito bed nets, processing cashews, etc. Detainees dare not refuse to work and in case if they do, they are beaten, electrocuted or placed in solitary confinement.
Let's all be clear about this. Bangladesh wants to win the race and not use bad examples of competitors to its advantage. But at this point, it's equally important to mention what goes around the world and how far we have come so far. So the only road left for us is to march forward with courage and grace. If there are corrections to be made, so be it. If the 'special paragraph' from ILO demands looking into correcting a few issues with the EPZ draft policy, so be it. If the upcoming International Labour Conference in June 2017 demands to see progress, we must take it upon our shoulders to perform. If the Compact Review Meeting in May wants to be convinced of good strides in the sector, let us do all that we can do to convince them of our attempts to excel. At the end of it all, labourers, government and industry must be on the same page, continuously engaging in transparent conversation. There is no other alternative. It is on us to collaborate. It is on us to work together, just because we can't afford to lose out on any trade advantage from anyone anymore. The workforce is too precious to give up on. A slight dent on the GSP advantage will damage the industry. So we can't afford to fail or falter.
While we take pride in what we have achieved so far, let us show the world that we can be the best in every sense of the word. And to those who make a difference to the lives of the millions of labourers by giving us trade advantages, a small appeal goes out today: By setting new standards of infrastructural integrity, Bangladesh RMG industry has proven its intent to soar to new heights. Therefore, please believe that we intend to achieve a lot more in terms of social dialogue and contribute to a positive paradigm shift. Neither can the industry afford to deviate from this commitment, nor should you give us up as, in case if you do, three million women will be thrown into a whirlpool of catastrophe and may never see the light of the day again.
The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.