IT'S not the best hour to land at an airport and it's certainly not the best time to pen a column. At 5:00 am Kuala Lumpur is also not as pretty as it normally is. But there are too many faces asking for direction to immigration, baggage claim et al. And your columnist has just turned into a happy tourist in transit providing services. These are the people who shape the contours of Bangladesh today. A quick look at yesterday's The Borneo Times would make anyone happy. A new deal between the Malaysian Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Richard Riot and Bangladesh's Minister of Expatriates' and Foreign Workers' Welfare Khandker Mosharraf Hossain has just been inked which will facilitate employment of 12000 more Bangladeshi workers. These 12000 workers will be joining the palm oil plantations. Incidentally these are the faces which bring back home floral quilt covered suitcases, occasionally face the immigration humiliation and yet send remittances that make us rich. In the first nine months of the country, Bangladeshi workers from Malaysia have remitted RM4.28 billion back home. Apparently only in Malaysia, ranked right after the Indonesian workers, Bangladeshis send in most of their money home.
It is this 'Just-a-Man' who makes all the difference in our lives. At the recently concluded Apparel Summit organised by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the focus was on predicting a $50 billion export on the 50th birthday of Bangladesh in 2021. Both the 50's made sense. Yet, what was it that would make this happen? What would power this dream? Policy support or people? While we speak about productivity, technology upgrades and infrastructure, the key element that usually goes missing in these discourses is the conversation on labor. For many years, Bangladeshi apparel manufacturers have stood resilient with their labor forces and have triumphed over many odds. For years the sector has been able to withstand natural calamities, labor unrests and challenging infrastructural set up and yet for all these years what kept the sector going was simply labor. Therefore, today, while we pin our hopes on the big 50, we need to pin it alongside our commitment to bridge with labour.
And while we do that, it's also time to stop calling our labour: cheap. The practice of labeling labour as 'cheap' should not sell anymore. A product maybe cheap, but labour is not. If we go by the words of the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, then we must assume that by 2030, poverty will be over. If one were to follow the consumption trends in the developing countries that have increased five times in between 2000 and 2010 in comparison to the 1990s scenario, then one would also have reasons to assume that by another decade or two, the global target to eradicate poverty would actually happen. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicted in November that the world would come close to losing its low cost manufacturing hubs by a decade or so. If so, and if the number of underemployed people truly decreases, would retailers be able to source from countries, which boast of 'cheap' labour? No. Even today, the average price of one square meter of apparel exported from China to the U.S, in the third quarter of 2014 has been 1% more expensive than in 2010. Yet in the same period, the U.S, in spite of the increase in price, has imported 4% more apparel from China itself. That gives us hope and that only means that eventually the garment manufacturers won't ever have to manipulate the terms and conditions of the workers and that pretty soon, manufacturers will be supporting sustainable livelihood for workers in place of simply refixing the occasional review of the minimum wage levels.
Yes, there is a chance that more competitive new markets will be opening up for the brands. Yes, Ethiopia makes sense, especially with the workers' monthly wages being as low as $50. But even with the low land and electricity costs, the innumerable textile and training institutes, the lure of infrastructure, the fiscal incentives for the investors, its impressive macro economic growth and its favourable trade connections like AGOA and EBA, does it really make sense to push labour to the edge in the name of development? No. The basic reality is that the low productivity in Ethiopia will soon be killing its prospects of 'cheap' labour. A country cannot have higher productivity with low cost labor. It's as simple as that. As soon as skill upgrades take place, the price of labor is bound to go up. And that is where Bangladesh wants to be. Bangladesh RMG sector does not want its share of the basic pie anymore. Four decades of manufacturing has given us confidence to dream of becoming a Middle Income Country by 2021; it has also given us the right to dream of capturing at least 10% of the global market share of apparel sourcing within the next decade. Most of all, our own challenges have taught us more resilience and has induced more conviction of staying alive with dignity along with our workforce.
It is indeed time to celebrate 'Just-A-Man', who impacts our lives in more ways than we can imagine. Only a few days ago, an exporter friend of your columnist shared a rare story…
On 28th November 2014 en-route to Chittagong, a covered truck with export goods was apprehended by 7 to 10 dacoits who attempted to take possession of the truck and cargo at about 4 kilometre from Feni Town at 4 am when the rail crossing barrier was down. They took what they could, including money and personal belongings of the people who were on the truck. But, the driver refused to hand over the ignition and cargo door keys upon which he was violently attacked and hacked with lethal weapons. Md. Seraj (cell 01683745909), holding a valid license #0480341 totally disregarded his own safety, held on to the cargo, in spite of the dacoits chopping one of his fingers off. Seraj drove to Chittagong in that condition just so that the cargo would not miss the vessel's “cut-off” time to load the goods. He had not stopped at the nearest police station as he thought that the police would first seize his truck and start investigation later. Seraj, after having dropped the cargo off at the port, had finally headed off for Chittagong Hospital.
Truth is, it is not promises, assurances or dreams that shape this country. It is 'Just-A-Man' Seraj and the millions tirelessly working behind the sewing machines, who makes us survive, thrive and sustain. If the lives of these people are labeled as 'cheap' and if it is their services that we offer with the same inexpensive branding, then the dream to hit $50 billion will only remain a utopia. Branding our labour with pride and attaching optimum human dignity to these heroes is the only box to be ticked today. Rest will only follow by default.
The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.