“Not Good Enough”

 Published in: The Daily Star on April 20, 2016

Neither am I surprised by what the Commerce Minister asked a high-powered delegation visiting Bangladesh, nor am I going to be shocked by the outcome that will follow. The honourable minister in a meeting with them had asked if they raised the same questions regarding trade unions in Vietnam. The team said, “yes.” To this the Minister responded and asked if they could name a trade union leader’s name over there. The team couldn’t name any. Most of us know that the pressures on Bangladesh are far from over. And therefore the accusations of Bangladesh being “slow” with remediation, of Bangladesh requiring to do “more”, of Bangladesh not “cooperating”, have come up in the media for the last two and a half years or so. So, how bad have we been?

In less than five days from today, the third anniversary of Rana Plaza will be observed. There will be discussions, seminars, symposiums, protests and many more events to mark the occasion. Once again, the entire readymade garment industry will be reminded of the tragedy that scarred Bangladesh forever. The entire industry will stand in shame, with all our heads down and nowhere to run. Once again, our report cards will be reviewed and very few of us will have a passing grade. Needless to say, we have unhappy examiners at the other end, trying to evaluate with a scale that requires microscopic examination.

How demanding are our auditors and how badly are we failing? Beyond Rana Plaza, the exports from Bangladesh have gone up. In March, the export is up by 9.2 percent, compared to 2014-15. Import of capital machineries has also gone up by 46 percent compared to last year. Many of us are setting up new factories and going ahead with added production lines. Many of us are running around like headless chickens trying to remediate in existing buildings and somehow meet the bare minimum bars of compliance. That only clearly indicates that the manufacturing landscape is changing. There are Corrective Action Plan sheets that every manufacturer listed with Accord and Alliance is bound to submit and get feedback on. If the Corrective Action Plan submission and timeline don’t satisfy the auditors, one has to review and give an acceptable solution. That is how the entire plan works. It is, however, the manufacturers’ sole responsibility to remediate and no one else’s. Fair enough.

Now, let’s look at a few grim realities. It takes three years to build a new factory, in case someone has land. A month ago, when I told this to a buyer of mine, he looked at me in utter disbelief and said, “Huh? It takes China only a fortnight to build new roads! And buildings? They complete within a year!” How would I be able to explain to this gentleman that China has a GDP per capita of $6,900, whereas Bangladesh is at less than one sixth of it? How would I explain to him that our GNI was 500 billion PPP dollars as opposed to China’s 16 trillion? The fault lies entirely at our end. With comparable, competitive supply of garments to the entire world, Bangladesh has somehow conveyed the message of readiness to complete remediation even without the active funding support from any brand. We have somehow told everyone that we can do almost anything, achieve the impossible, change locations, remediate 100 percent . . . all in less than three years.

In reality, we do what we need to do. We have no alternative to doing business. Therefore, we compromise and never question. At the end of it all, we believe that if we stay afloat, business will follow. Problem is, what are we promising the brands and the auditors and at what cost? The funds being made available to the manufacturers are being given at a much lower interest rate than the manufacturers are finally getting them for, since these funds are being routed via the Finance Ministry, Bangladesh Bank and then finally the commercial banks. Securing the loan is equally cumbersome. So, the detection and the protection system, which will cost any factory a minimum of USD 200k, the remediation cost of at least another USD 100k, etc, will all have to be on the shoulders of the vendor. If a factory has to shift, a whole new scene begins to unfold, as has been the case of your columnist.

I had to shift one of our factories to a new location. Neither do I have gas in that location, nor do I have constant electricity in that new factory. A brand new building with 60,000 square feet a floor, a factory qualified to be green with energy saving utilities all over, is running at less than half efficiency and causing me a loss every day. Workers in the new location are not skilled, therefore, after suffering load shedding for at least four hours a day, production in that factory is extremely challenging. This is only one scene of relocation.

In times of remediation, extreme hiccups pop up. Every fire resistant wall of 10” takes up more space in the factory; every generator or substation to be relocated outside the building needs additional area; every fire door installed needs a new frame, and a wider area for swing; every fire hydrant system means readdressing the entire floor structure and the list can go on.

Even worse is when a manufacturer suffers sleepless nights, anticipating the next moment, the next mail in the inbox with an escalation notice for not having done “enough”. Irrespective of the physical, infrastructural or human constraints, the shift or the remediation has to happen, otherwise business will cease. Above all, there’s also a case of extreme shaming by being exposed in the public domain of being named as the non-compliant supplier, which may result in permanent termination of business. With so much at stake, can a Bangladeshi manufacturer dare not address these issues? Absolutely not…

But then progress is most likely to be “unsatisfactory” and “insufficient”. Apart from addressing the labour law amendment, minimum wage adjustment, remediation, relocation, we must accept that our progress report is most likely to be “slow” as no one is ever likely to believe us when we pledge deadlines. After all, we lost that right in 2013. After all, we killed 1,134 of our own children three years ago. And we will never be good enough for anyone anymore.

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