Moving forward from the tragedy
A garment manufacturer takes a long, hard look at what needs to be done
The meeting of the BGMEA on April 27 has concluded with a few resolutions. One of them is the requirement that the factory is structurally certified by a group of engineers. They will have to shut down if there are cracks in the building. All fair. But how will Bangladesh continue to occupy the second position as an exporter? And how secure will the workers be? In the midst of all these queries, what will possibly be lost are the stories of those who have left us, those who have survived with amputated limbs, and those heroes who have braved the death traps.
The meeting of the BGMEA on April 27 has concluded with a few resolutions. One of them is the requirement that the factory is structurally certified by a group of engineers. They will have to shut down if there are cracks in the building. All fair. But how will Bangladesh continue to occupy the second position as an exporter? And how secure will the workers be?
In the midst of all these queries, what will possibly be lost are the stories of those who have left us, those who have survived with amputated limbs, and those heroes who have braved the death traps.
Will lessons be learnt? Yes. Will corrective measures be taken? Yes. Will that be enough? No.
The reason is simple: it’s not possible to change the overall infrastructure overnight or even in three to six months, or even a year or two. The government is not in a position to either give us adequate land or utilities. Then how will the industry survive? It won’t.
As far as our image is concerned, we are doomed. It will take multiple rounds of international lobbying and domestic efforts to rescue what we have lost. We, the manufacturers have lost ground.
The retailers may be placing their bets on us with revised, lower prices, but at the end, on the negotiation table, we will cave into their threats of “take-it-or-leave-it” and we shall all comply with all their demands, without batting our eyelids for even a second.
Their demands will most possibly contain a revised building integrity code, which will simply lengthen the compliance checklist and besides that, there will again be columns marked “Corrective Action Plan” (CAP) which the manufacturer will have to fulfill.
In our CAP, we will all be giving fresh dates to the retailers, assuring them that everything will be good by then. The reality is, we take weeks to rectify a leak in the toilet, months to build a new door, and years to mend our ways. So, our Corrective Action Plans could take forever.
November 24 last year (Tazreen), and April 24 (Savar), have left us with a sense of shame and regret that will be difficult to reconcile.
But even then, many of us have defended our position. The building owner has, to start with. The endless talk shows on television and the associated interviews have covered all the industry leaders.
At a press conference, we, the manufacturers have tried defending the factory owner saying that the building owner is to be blamed, as he had overruled the possibility of a disaster. To all who defended the manufacturers and shifted the blame elsewhere, or to all those who have underplayed the multiple tragedies in our industry, a clear message should be conveyed: the buck must stop here and now.
The industry cannot stand in defence and the administration cannot pick sides and plan “press” handouts.
As a manufacturer and an exporter, I sincerely urge BGMEA to at least take a few initiatives:
1) Ask at least 500 good factories to donate Tk200,000 each and create an instant disaster management fund that can help the victims and their families;
2) Ask the same 500 to take responsibility of at least 3 workers affected by the tragedy;
3) Disallow members using shared buildings;
4) Engage with retailers to set up a specialised rehabilitation unit for the survivors;
5) Audit production units in three phases, beginning with the riskiest, followed by riskier and risky;
6) Appoint lobbyists to do some damage control and help secure the future of the 4m workers in the industry.
Bangladesh must survive this tragedy. As a result, the RMG sector needs to present its case to the retailers out there. The whole country needs to stay united in the face of this disaster.
The manufacturers’ community needs to join hands in prayer and plan a few actions which will not sound like a politically correct press release, but rather, a gesture of us standing together in shame and regret.
We, the manufacturers, need to take collective responsibility to fight the battle that awaits us. The threat of withdrawal of GSP from the US and the warnings from the European Union on safety and security are only two of the fireballs that are coming our way.
The greatest test will be to stand before our own people and come out clean, with a sincere intent to protect the lives that earn our daily bread.
On the 24th, after having come back from Savar, I posted the following in social media, with which I’d like to end this piece:
“[I] Never thought there would ever come a time when we would be ashamed to introduce ourselves as garment manufacturers. Today however is that day. I forgot to recite: inna lillah at the site, possibly because the proximity of tragedy and sin often numbs and kills the spirit.”
For me, that says it all. Amen.
Rubana Huq is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.