Let me begin with a quote by Bengali poet and Nobel Prize Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”
I want to use these words as an inspiration for the journey we have embarked upon across the Bangladesh garments industry. We all want to see a stronger, richer and developed Bangladesh crossing Tagore’s sea with wind in its sails. To do so, we cannot merely stare at the water but venture the high seas, using sustainability as our tailwind.
Our age requires businesses to be compliant, flexible and innovative to play at the global level. They need to prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. But manufacturers shouldn’t be left alone. This effort must be a concerted one, involving all levels of the supply chain.
Experience from Better Work across nine countries shows that improved working conditions across the garments sector benefit workers and their families and drive higher profitability for manufacturers.
What about Bangladesh?
The garments sector has played a pivotal role in uplifting the country’s economy, creating numerous jobs, pushing down the number of people living in poverty, and fostering female labour participation. The USD 34 billion a year garments export industry is today the second largest in the world.
Following the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, the industry has seen tremendous improvements. Efforts that brought these incredible results to life are highly commendable.
Still, the future is stubbornly tapping its feet, asking us to do more.
Bangladesh still has some of the lowest wages among RMG producer countries. Freedom of association faces challenges. Meanwhile, part of the industry’s “race to the bottom” on price at the lower-end of the market places a pressure down the supply chain. This poses further hurdles to the implementation of sustainable compliance across the factory floor.
Bangladesh will graduate to middle-income country status in 2024, which means it could lose EU trade preferences if it does not continue on the path of legislative reforms in compliance with international standards.
In parallel, Bangladesh needs to ward off competition. As the garments industry keeps searching for competitive production hubs worldwide, countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and now Ethiopia present new challenges for the local industry.
Sustainability, innovation and expertise development are thus not an option but a must to move to the next level, generate decent employment and cement Bangladesh’s position as a preferred outsourcing hub contributing to the country’s sustainable growth.
We at Better Work Bangladesh (BWB) are eager to offer our contribution to reach these goals. Our core ambition is to promote sustainable mechanisms for compliance which have an impact on productivity and efficiency. And this outreach extends far beyond the programme itself.
All actors must play their part.
Governments, employers and workers are elements of the same structure that sustains and improves compliance with the Labour Law and core labour standards through enforcement and industrial relations. This process must be supported by responsible business practices across the whole supply chain.
Global brands and retailers are critical to the success of this mission. Through their concern for customers’ values and preferences for ethically sourced fashion, they help drive improvements across factories.
BWB’s sustainability strategy sees stakeholders fully in the driver seat, equipped with the tools, framework and mind-set to ensure that good working conditions are standard in the industry. We see a role for BWB in forging a shared sense of purpose and implementing a joint roadmap to build a strong, self-reliant culture of compliance.
As part of the Sustainability Compact, which includes the European Union, the Government of Bangladesh, the United States, Canada and the ILO, alongside employers, trade unions and other key stakeholders, we aim to promote continuous improvements in labour rights and factory safety in the RMG industry.
We believe transparency is an essential requirement. The establishment of a platform for factories to exchange best practices is underway and will serve this purpose.
Five years into our existence, BWB’s outreach spans more than 530,000 workers in 230 factories, working with 25 international brand partners. That is not yet enough.
We will expand to help drive lasting and sustainable change across the industry. Plans are in the pipeline to establish an office in Chittagong by 2020, where a growing number of BWB factories are located. We are also exploring opportunities to dialogue with the Export Processing Zones Authority, to contribute to continuous improvement of working conditions in the garments sector while maintaining the improvements already implemented.
We can proudly say that the longer a factory is engaged with BWB, the more notable its increase in compliance is. We also know that factories that have completed most of the required fire, electrical and structural safety remediation can now direct more resources to social compliance, including the protection of workers’ rights, the promotion of social dialogue and gender equity, and the improvement of occupational health and safety.
Automation is in progress and Bangladesh has no other option but to embrace it. An ILO report on the transformation of the textile and clothing sector across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) states that the textile, clothing and footwear sector is at the highest risk of losing jobs in the fourth industrial revolution.
Though automation will not affect the whole industry equally, it is time to increase investment in training and education.
A vast portion of the workers in the clothing industry remains unskilled. Without targeted learning programmes, those workers, particularly women, will lose out.
If we work together and concentrate our efforts in expanding labour market skills to ensure job retention, we won’t only have averted an unimaginable employment crisis. We will have also instigated the process of creating a higher value-added industry that will further fuel economic growth, job creation and social progress.
We also cannot forget the importance of gender equality.
While their proportion has significantly decreased, women still make up the majority of garments workers. Empowering and training them ensures their voices are heard, they can progress up the career ladder, and combat harassment and violence in the workplace. Those are key elements of the Better Work strategy at the global and local level.
BWB partnered with IFC in the Gender Equality and Returns (Gear) programme to provide female factory operators with the necessary skills to become supervisors. We joined hands with UNICEF in the Mothers@Work initiative to promote maternity, breastfeeding and childcare protection in factories. This is an integral part of guaranteeing women’s access to decent work and ensuring factories increase efficiency and productivity in their lines and keep skilled employees.
It is only through true sustainability and a compliant value chain that we can guarantee inclusion, growth and the retention of the industry’s global heavyweight status in the decades to come. A sustainable garments industry will help shape up a sustainable society to be passed on to future generations.
So let’s not just stand and stare at the water. Let’s be bold, and make the journey together.
Anne-Laure Henry-Gréard is the Country Programme Manager for the Better Work Bangladesh Programme, a joint project of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and International Finance Corporation (IFC).