A tale of the Green versus the Red

 Published in: The Daily Star on November 16, 2023
A tale of the Green versus the Red

Should the RMG sector not take a few steps back and speak about greening the workers’ lives along with the factories? PHOTO: PRABIR DAS

The RMG sector needs to be united in being professional, go forward with value addition and, most of all, opt for strong industrial relations with labour.

At times, familiarity causes discomfort. Being too close to an issue blurs one’s vision. Enlarging something under a magnifying glass also dismisses the objective scale. It is only under a microscope that the object can best be dissected. But, very often, the reports are rarely available for general consumption. People close to the ready-made garment (RMG) industry—such as yours truly—find it difficult to explain the anatomy of the sector, while people outside get to see the magnified version, readily available for viewing thanks to traditional and non-traditional media.

Around 130 factories continue to remain shut because of the recent unrest; around 300 factories closed down during 2020-21. Post-Covid, 260 factories closed down. Gas prices have soared by around 287 percent and production costs have gone up by 40 percent. Inflation has hit the skies; exports to the EU have dropped by 16 percent, and exports to the US have taken a dive by around 35 percent. Meanwhile, at least 123 factories have been vandalised, 22 cases have been filed, 88 individuals have been arrested, and 12 cases have been filed, with over 3,500 accused.

These statistics have come in over the last two weeks of intense agitation in the country’s industrial zones. The deaths of Rasel, Imran, Jalal, and Anjuara during this agitation will also become numbers, soon to be reconciled with compensation and press conferences.

A few of my colleagues in the industry have had their factories burnt, staff and workers beaten, and finally have had to declare their factories shut. Whomever I spoke to had just one concern: for their own people and not for the machines.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not over-humanising the owners. But what I am trying to say is that regular owners and good exporters have nothing to do with the perceived insensitivity of the sector. The endless video clips of outsiders entering factory premises, instigating workers, and finally destroying the factory only prove the vulnerability of a mature sector that largely remains unprepared for most externalities. I also want to make it clear that the fate of Bangladesh’s RMG sector largely depends on muscle, industrial myopia, and proximity to politics. Very rarely has this industry been guided by innovative thought. It is because of the lack of attention to credible communication that no one has really had a chance to look at the decades-old skeleton of the industry.

While discourses around wages have been an integral part of the industry, truth be known, the stories inside the factories have also rarely been shared. Some are tales of success and some may be of deep disappointment, but the reports related to workers’ mistreatment and of mid-level management going rogue are plenty, while most success stories have remained undocumented.

Ever since 2010, members of the Industrial Police have been assisting the sector and helping the industry navigate some major difficulties. Way back in 2019, a WhatsApp group was formed with all the zone teams, and five from the BGMEA board continued to monitor situations on a minute-to-minute basis.

The message was clear: violence was not an option for any party, mainly because it cannot be an instrument to dispel protests. It is mainly because of this trend of violence and negative stories that Bangladesh, till date, continues to occupy centre-stage at the International Labour Organization (ILO). The complaint concerning non-observance by Bangladesh of the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81), the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98)—made under Article 26 of the ILO Constitution by several delegates to the 108th Session of the International Labour Conference—is still unresolved. And despite our law minister representing the country in the ILO every year, many trade unions remain unconvinced and some even instigate thorny discourses during the assemblies.

But there has hardly been any real progress or dialogue with real labour in this country. While a tripartite council called RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) has been formed, which has six representatives from brands, trade unions, and manufacturers, and while that platform was set up to replace the Accord in Bangladesh (which had come in for remediation right after the Rana Plaza collapse), and eventually develop a Labour and Sustainability wing, the progress of this platform has been significant, but not sufficient. Needless to mention, the capacity-building of the RSC depends on financing from the brands and the industry, and in the absence of resources, that potential of the organisation cannot be optimised and has thus stayed limited to carrying out inspections.

The weakness of the sector also lies in the politics of the trade, where manufacturers are deeply divided on multiple issues and continue to adopt rhetorical statements on industry positioning. The sector is always fighting fires, being defensive, and never having time to hit the reset button. It is specifically for this reason that we have unrest in our factories, why the industry falls prey to politics, and perhaps why the minimum wage issue is set to coincide with the national elections.

The RMG sector has experienced price stagnation for decades. Has it ever considered engaging with the brands and saying that there ought to be a minimum price review every couple of years? Or has this been too sensitive an issue to approach?

One of the principal reasons behind price stagnation is the lack of dialogue with buyers. While brands and retailers consider market realities and need to commit to ethical sourcing, the sector itself also needs to collectively make a case now and not undercut each other just because the entrepreneurs need to have their factories running at any cost. And yet, Bangladesh has 203 LEED-certified green factories, 53 out of the top 100 green garment factories, with 500 awaiting certification. If going green and having endless discourses on sustainability is the focus of the sector, should it not take a few steps back and speak about greening the workers’ lives as well?


In fact, does Green even matter at this point in time? And can the highest number of green factories ever offset the pages of history marked in Red?

A couple of realisations must set in. With ever-dipping prices owing to the market and constant competition of prices dropping within the sector, our RMG industry will never be able to raise the margin, never be able to cope with increased costs, and never be able to raise wages beyond a certain ceiling unless new thinking, newer strategies, and newer stances are introduced. We have truly had enough of over-politicised stances marring the industry. The RMG sector needs to be united in being professional, go forward with value addition and, most of all, opt for strong industrial relations with labour. For an industry in fashion, it’s highly unfashionable to have traditional actors calling the shots with zero R&D in the industry’s positioning on reputational risk. The answer doesn’t lie in simply ticking boxes of compliance, coming out with official statements, or export figures that sit uncomfortably with poor margins and a tainted image. There must be openness to confess fragility and change the course accordingly.

Little do we realise that it is we who allow the outsiders to vandalise our factories, give space to the others to play mean politics with trade, and cannot go beyond the box or admit that we need freshness in vision. The strength of Bangladesh’s RMG sector cannot rely on mimicking national politics. That’s utterly wrong and immoral.