I took a break from writing columns ever since I took over as the President of the Bangladesh Manufacturers and Exporters Association. It's been almost a year and a half and I regret this silence, simply because I realise today, more than ever before, that the huge disconnect between the industry and the "others" exists. In the group of "others," I most painfully include my friends who are academics and activists who we could have perhaps won over if there were more discourses on trade. For academics, their reports are key; for activists, their protests are critical and for the industry, endorsement from all quarters is essential. In the absence of a well crafted, all inclusive narrative, the industry suffers and ultimately, that impacts the millions of workers in this trade.
Today, I refer to the op-ed authored by Dr Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, Director of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley titled "Facade of workers' safety beginning to show cracks during the pandemic", published by The Daily Star on October 14, 2020. Sanchita Saxena is an excellent academic with whom I have had a connection since the 2013 Rana Plaza incident. I have even had the honour of authoring a chapter in the book Labor, Global Supply Chains, and the Garment Industry in South Asia: Bangladesh After Rana Plaza, which was edited by Dr Saxena. Thus, while I have profound respect for the Center and its objectives, the piece came as a surprise against our expectation of high quality and unbiased research.
I found the oped and the report released by the Center for Bangladesh Studies, titled "The Impact of Covid-19 on the Lives of Workers in the Bangladesh Garment Industry", to have ignored all the positive strides of the industry in order to raise an anti-industry narrative, which doesn't come up with any solution to the problems, but causes significant damage instead. It should be noted that the oped was followed by a webinar which was held couple of weeks ago where stakeholders including BGMEA participated and made a number of clarifications, which were not reflected in the oped for reasons not understood by the industry.
We respect the importance of critics and research that bring critical issues to light, but this report is seen as an attempt to connect with empathy for the workers at the cost of dishonouring the industry.
The op-ed mentions that "84 percent of factories under the Accord have corrected their outstanding structural issues. Covid-19, however, has put a spotlight on just how "safe" workers really are". Rana Plaza was a collective tragedy from which the industry substantially learnt and improved but while reading a piece that focuses on Covid-19 and the possibility of viral infection at workplaces, I find it difficult to relate these two completely different incidents. Covid-19 is a global phenomenon which has affected all countries and economies more or less at the same time in the same magnitude.
It mentions that "Many studies show that this business model, characterised by hyper-flexibility and limited transparency, contributes to increased incidents of sexual harassment and gender-based violence and to overall declines in the mental and physical health of workers". Let me stress on the fact that Bangladesh is a meagre part of the global "business model" which itself seems to be flawed. While the garment industry is no way isolated or free from social tensions and disorders, while #Metoo exposes the true faces of the "civilised societies", we don't understand how such accusations could be generalised on the industry.
The report also mentioned, "It is difficult for workers to be "protected from harm," when they are forced into practices that negatively impact their health". What harm and practices it actually refers to is not made clear. There is no scope of generalised statements about this industry since we operate under multiple radars of the government's inspection, buyers' audit, labour federations/NGOs and the industry associations monitoring. No one in the industry is forced to do something against his/her will.
The research report and the oped cites a number of sources against the statements, "According to the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Dhaka, a worker must spend at least Tk 3,270 per month on a variety of foods to meet their calorific needs; they found, however, that workers really have the ability to spend only about Tk 1,110 a month". For the sake of argument, assuming the household monthly income of a worker is Tk 19,037 (household income for the month of May as mentioned in the report), and average household size to be 3.99 (as mentioned in the report), the total ability to spend for food is calculated as Tk 4,429 (1,110x 3.99); which means that spending on food is only 23.26 percent of the household income, but multiple study reports show that the share of food expenses on income is not less than 40 percent. So the facts presented in the op-ed are not correct and require cross-verification.
The oped also shared, "…we found that in April, when salaries hit their lowest point, female garmentworkers received only Tk 5,742 and male workers only Tk 7,739 for that month". This may be noted that since the factories were closed during the month of April, it was a directive from the government to pay 65 percent of the actual wages to the workers who were at home and did not work in that month. So, they received this amount without having to work, whereas they did not have to pay for the usual cost of accommodation, travel, etc. either, as most of them moved to their respective village homes. These factors are not detected by the microscope of the researchers for understandable reasons. Covid-19 has caused unprecedented challenges to all, regardless of profession or income group, and the marginal income groups are understandably the worst affected. When compared to the vulnerable working classes in other economic sectors, RMG workers were better off since their wages were ensured by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh through mobile financial services transfer.
However, to avoid impacts on livelihoods in such situations, what is most needed is an unemployment protection scheme for the workers. Instead of flagging the importance of such a scheme, the author focused on the importance of living wages—"I think it is high time to revisit the idea of a living wage" (echoing the Clean Clothes Campaign, which said "The severity of this crisis could have been averted if living wages had been paid, and social protection mechanisms had been implemented"). In such a disastrous situation when the industry and economy are affected, wages (minimum or living) come under risk, so how it could avert such situation is difficult to understand. The report does not even bother to think about whether the price paid for an apparel supports living wage, or anywhere near to that!
Finally, the op-ed mentions "In our survey, 90 percent of workers said they did not receive any support from the government during this pandemic". The question that becomes relevant is—had the government not supported the workers, how could they receive three month wages flawlessly through digital payment, and how were the wages for the month of April paid without having to work for it? This has to be acknowledged as a great support from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which was announced very timely for the sake of protecting workers' livelihoods. So, "workers did not receive any support from the government" is inaccurate. Also, the lack of reference to critical issues on how the industry survived, after being swamped by cancellations worth more than USD three billion, abrupt discounts, selling goods at deferred payment terms assuming great risk of getting payment, encountering financial losses due to buyers' bankruptcy, and the 5.5 percent drop in price level in September alone, is surprising.
Would all this SDG and MDG related progress be possible by excluding garment workers? How often do researchers ponder on the unbridled and irresponsible consumerism that encourages purchases of "buy one get one" t-shirts just because it offers great value for money, ignoring the value of the life of someone producing it here?
These are questions worth asking today. With the frequent tag of sustainability requirement coming our way, the conversation on changing the narrative on Bangladesh's industry has to happen this minute. Examining the industry from outside offers limited knowledge. If it's a quest for truth, let us all do a deep dive into the depths of our conscience and figure out what is it that we really can be proud of: the reports, the populism or survival of the millions.
Dr Rubana Huq is the President of BGMEA and the Managing Director of Mohammadi Group.
Her Twitter handle is @Rubanah.