Over 8,000 km away, everything looks different. The skies, the sunrise, the people and of course, trade. In Paris, the three-day Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector, held from February 11-13, led to an important conclusion for us as a country—it is important to be heard in the correct light and platform. The OECD Due Diligence Guidelines were developed through a multi stakeholder process as a response to the G7 Leaders' Declaration in 2015, which welcomed international efforts to promulgate industry-wide due diligence standards in the textile and ready-made garment (RMG) sector. This year too, government, business, workers' and civil society representatives gathered to discuss these issues in a neutral environment. There were sessions on our collaborative national platform—the RMG Sustainability Council—along with sessions on responsible sourcing, mandatory due diligence and the way forward.
In my diary, while the priority had always been addressing our image deficit, it has also been around other multiple agendas that would somehow have to be addressed. A lot remains to be achieved. With Bangladesh's graduation to a middle income country lurking right around the corner, the struggles will be around a few solid areas, including being innovative around lobbying, media, research, designing and more.
We need to be in touch with Brussels more than ever before, ticking by their clock and waking up to the European Union tune. Our visibility must also increase in Paris, with great expositions such as the Première Vision and Tex World. One round of discussions with Institut Français de la Mode (IFM), the French fashion institute, revealed how much there is to be done. The school is being run by economists who take stock of global trends and supply chains. The professors giving presentations were between 50-70 years of age, yet while walking past the chirpy hallways and happy classrooms, the young jeans clad teachers stood for the story of the institute, which only pays attention to creativity. The knitting labs had students listening to music and knitting sweaters in manual machines, only to graduate to jacquard machines from Stoll after they were through with their initial learning curve. Their patterns were innovative. Their mood was one seeped in the mirth of learning. On one of their windows, the apt statement on fashion stood boldly posted—"la mode n'est pas ephemere, c'est aimer faire"—"fashion isn't meant to be short lived, it's to be loved and upheld in permanence."
After walking away from IFM, a few realities continued to hit me in the hardest way possible, especially with regard to product diversification, skill diversification, sector diversification and value addition.
In terms of product diversification, the case as it stands now happens to be dismal. Strangely, 73 percent of our RMG exports are concentrated on five items—with t-shirts amounting to USD 7.01 billion, trousers worth USD 6.93 billion, jackets worth USD 4.63 billion, sweaters worth USD 4.25 billion and USD 2.32 billion accounting for shirts. Sixty-seven other products make up 36 percent of import concentration, in which we have only a 20 percent share. The next potential products could easily be brassieres, knitted or crocheted t-shirts, MMF based girls and women's blouses and shirts, along with windcheaters, anoraks and jackets for adults and children of both sexes.
Considering the level of literacy of our workers, it is impossible for them to graduate to a new platform of skills. How do we educate them? How do we reskill? Could we potentially use them to be health aides or could we teach them other skills? These are all questions we need to ask ourselves. A community based reskilling centre for workers and factory wise digital opportunities could be sought and thought of.
In the meantime, we don't even know which sectors our workers are going to fit into. While Bangladesh remains heavily dependent on RMG, what could we do next? In a scale of economic complexity—which is used as a holistic measure of the productive capabilities of large economic systems—23 percent of Turkey's production focus was garments and 4.4 percent was on machinery and vehicles in 1995. By 2017, it had brought its RMG production to 151 percent and had balanced it with 21.5 percent machinery and vehicles. In contrast, Bangladesh was ranking at 96 in 1995 in complexity terms and in 2017, it ended up being 104 out of 133, only a few notches apart from where it was more than two decades ago.
In terms of value addition, our ever failing and falling price levels (3.64 percent dip from the EU and over 7.04 percent dip from US markets) over the last four years are a cause of concern. In a year, our exports have dipped by almost 7 percent. Only in December 2019, we have had a dip of 2.49 percent in price and 2.48 percent in quantity.
With so much on the platter, along with the labour narrative that needs to be put straight, we can't just respond to queries in vague terms. If there are deviations, we need to know and if there is a lack of detail, finger pointing without specifics is to be shunned. In a sector of 4.1 million workers, things going wrong must be remedied, but to generalise the situation with random accusations and surveys with limited sample sizes is not enough. At the same time, we need to find allies who will side with us and endorse the meaningful journey that Bangladesh has embarked on.
On our end, we need to defend our own culture, history and practices. At the Western end, they should teach us their terms of engagement to improve standards. So far, the formula is that we comply, and they prescribe. But even amidst so many prescriptions, for the last seven years, we have grown stronger and more resilient. That is what is beautiful about having our own territory and owning our own sense of identity. What we give back is even more beautiful. We give back a sense of accomplishment aided with knowledge and a new sense of being better by the day.
Seven years ago, immediately after the Rana Plaza tragedy, new codes and protocols relating to fire, electrical and structural safety came into being. Seven years on, we are the safest manufacturing hub any brand or retailer can think of. Even the smallest of the lot have learnt that there is no alternative to safety; there is no alternative to rules and sustainability. The work has been done and the only way forward is never to forget the lessons learnt. The goal has been met and the only way forward is to have the national context inserted into the journey, along with the determination to beat the bias and alter the negative narrative that we continue to fight every minute.
There are lessons to be learnt from history. We should look at the stark contrast that we have with Myanmar. In the 1960s, Myanmar's income per capita of USD 250 was twice of Thailand and around four times of Indonesia, and was only a little below Malaysia. In spite of being a very influential nation, and in spite of being one of the founders of the Asia-Africa Union along with Indonesia and India, the decision to close down its economy, wrongly led by the military junta, created a nation that today commits genocide and has a GDP per capita of around USD 1,000 fifty years later, which is only a quarter of Indonesia, and lower than both Laos and Cambodia. In contrast, here in Bangladesh, the pattern of governance centres around repair, redress and realignment, and thus, the country continues to grow from strength to strength.
Potential debacles may be plenty. But the unbeatable story and spirit of the private sector, aided by sound sector policy and guided by a solid, socio-economic understanding of the industry, can overcome all this, and can only lead the sector to the next level. Failing this, we will have the pages in our history books marked in red, reflecting the collective failure of the economy, which will impact the lives of millions. Neither the private nor the public sector can ever afford to fail a single one of them.
Dr Rubana Huq is the President of BGMEA and the Managing Director of Mohammadi Group.
Her Twitter handle is @Rubanah.