Limits to critique and dreams

 Published in: The Daily Star on August 18, 2014
Limits to critique and dreams

Shamim Osman and Dr. Salina Hayat Ivy’s episode in a private television channel aired a few days ago attracted more than a million hits in Youtube. While Shamim Osman attacked Ivy on corruption issues related to local governance, and while Ivy looked uncomfortable trying to answer his concerns, and while the accusations are yet to be proven, Shamim Osman insisted and asked if corruption issues could be addressed later, why would the seven-murder case repeatedly gain attention in the media? At the end of the debate, it became an issue of a comparative sin with Shamim Osman pushing his case through. In our land, a couple of dictums have already been established:

1)    The strength of the vocal chords sways the opinion of the people. “Chorer boro gola”: The thief has the loudest pitch is what counts in our psyche.

2)    “Shokter bhokto, noromer jom”: One needs to deliver the hardest punch in order to silence any opposing views forever.

3)    “Jor jar, mulluk tar”: Public perception is constructed and deconstructed with the use of force

These age-old sayings have held ground for the longest time possible. Man exerts all his will and power to preserve his body, and therefore ends up in a state of perpetual war of all against all (bellum ominum contra omnes). In such a state of conflict, nothing is just or unjust, or right or wrong. In absence of a common power, Force and Fraud become effective tools of power. Homo homini lupus (man’s ferocity wins over all). Hobbes wins. But at the same time, ferocity is not an open-ended strategy and is mostly defeating after a prolonged period of time.

Talk show guests in our television channels should pay heed to these infallible dictums. In fact, the tendency to openly and casually critique has been long practiced in this country of ours. Proof lies in causal interviews, opinions shed by organisations that critique governance and economy with apparent authority. Basically, conversations in this land need to be responsibly restrained. Self-censorship must prevail over all. In all honesty, just rhetoric cannot win over reason anymore.  

Just read an interview of a responsible researcher on the state of garments in our country. Interestingly enough, the organisation that he works for has provided a lot of insights into the sector in the last two years or so. Yet, the nagging post- script on the sector not doing enough is still his overarching point. How does a sector transform itself overnight? Are there any prescriptions for this? The inspections of Accord and Alliance are covered in the dailies on a regular basis. Yet, does anyone even know how much money it will take for a sector to remedy itself and that almost no assistance from any sector has been offered and that almost no support is being provided?

For the first time in 2014, exports have dipped by 4.14% in July. Woven garment export came down to $1.21 billion in July from $1.26 billion in the same month last year. Exports don’t just drop. They drop when business shifts elsewhere. In spite of many academics and industry gurus predicting that exports will continue to soar, your columnist will still firmly maintain that the growth of Bangladesh’s RMG sector is not taking the sustainability route and with every fire, every labour unrest, the strength of this sector will be facing fresh challenges.

These challenges cannot be fought alone. Academics and researchers need to understand the business from an “up, close and personal” basis. Instead of just saying that the sector has loopholes, one would expect the researchers to come up with a list of suggestions that will help the industry. Problems have been identified. How about helping the economy with adequate suggestions? I would humbly suggest the think tanks to tow the following path:

1)    Be present in an Accord or Alliance inspection;

2)    Work on the corrective action plans and economics along with the management of the factory;

3)    Invest in the feasibility of the remediation and in the study of profitability;

4)    Advise the sector on the scope and relocation of the weak industrial units as new factories, already built and ready, are waiting for gas connections.

Industry critics need to understand that in spite of the unrest, the private sector has achieved unimaginable heights. It’s time for everyone to also understand that sustainability does not lie in fire doors, fire resistive walls and sprinkler systems. Sustainability lies in promoting awareness about factories nurturing a care culture, which will embrace humane targets and engage in overall welfare of the workers. However strange it sounds, even Chinese manufacturers have launched a Health Enables Return (HER) project that promotes health, economic knowledge and women’s rights. The business benefits include promoting the wellbeing and knowledge of the women workers along with reducing absenteeism and sick leave.  One also needs to realise that leadership training needs to be provided.

This industry will never go places if expectations stay limited to papers that relate to simply hardcore compliance.  The problem lies in lack of education and awareness. When merchandisers communicate in the weakest form of English and when our graduates come off with flying colours and yet not know the basic business English, when the Fashion Institute churns out graduates with little knowledge of the real world of garmenting, how can an industry take off overnight by just fixing doors, vents and walls?

A full education and counseling at management level is needed. Academics and researchers should aid the sector by devising ways to enlighten the owners of the industry. Otherwise, warnings and critiques will remain unheard and the industry stalwarts will always rise in defense, which will yield no meaningful return or improvement.

Your columnist walked the aisles of her factory just the other day and was wondering what would happen to the worker who would spend twenty years with the factory and then suddenly retire? Will a female garment worker never have a chance to dream? At a time like this, an old friend who has set up a private university for Asian women approached your columnist and has just proposed to take in female workers and provide them access training for a year for them to be inducted into the academic stream without any formal training.

By the time you read the column, your columnist will be interviewing seven women who are exceptionally talented and have proven their worth in the sewing lines. All seven of them will be interviewed and proposed as possible university entrants. This is where the dreams of an owner and a worker converge. This is one of the promising places where the sector wants to be. If your columnist can dream, so can her worker.

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

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