The risky flight of repute

 Published in: The Daily Star on May 20, 2015

BUSINESS is a risky business indeed. One doesn’t rest in ease in the corporate world. Tensions come flying in; every second phone conversation adds to the stress level; breaking news cause fresh tremors; every meeting means having more issues piling up on the desk. This is what being involved in business means in this country. And no, being a businessman does not always mean big cars, big houses, money being stashed overseas, having second passports and children being parked in safe havens. Being in business often means carrying a lot of baggage of unresolved issues. It’s mostly about trying to tell a good story and about living one day at a time. In the span of 24 hours, one may peak to a star height and in the next 24, one may land nose down on the ground, never wanting to surface again. This only happens when one is in profile. Living and dying in high profile is a curse in most part of the world. Yet many of us are uncontrollably drawn to the flames and in the process, often burn ourselves with public exposure . . . especially because stories of success are quickly covered and hard to come by. And when and if there are any success stories, one may as well start counting down to zero and eventually review the shelf life of the story with caution.

One such success story is Apex Footwear. The father started the business and now the son runs it with success. Many of our children have joined our businesses and many of them are indeed doing better than what we could have ever hoped to have achieved in our lives. Just a few months ago, Forbes ran a full story on the Apex father-son duo and called their industry “a different face of Bangladesh manufacturing.” Apex is located 25 miles north of Dhaka city in Gazipur district. It’s spread over a 24-acre site where 5,500 workers, mostly women, make leather shoes. The company ships 4.5 million pairs annually and caters to 130 retailers. On top of that the company has 550 outlets in the country and sells three million pairs domestically. Forbes also reported that the factory pays $100 wage to the workers along with two bonuses and a share of profits. Equipped with an effluent treatment plant, a purification plant for drinking water, a medical clinic and a day nursery, Apex is known for good practices.

But then, earlier this month, when an employee suffered a miscarriage in her workplace toilet at Apex, after she was “allegedly” refused medical leave, all hell broke loose. The woman’s name was made public in the media. At this point, one may want to recollect that for many days, one didn’t know the name of the Delhi rape case victim and referred to her as the Daughter of India. But here, all of us got to know the name of the worker from minute one, way before it was even minimally required. The story was simple: she wanted leave; the factory supervisor denied her the same; and she suffered miscarriage in the toilet. The report was pretty straight cut: a four-month old baby had died as the mother was denied leave by the factory authority and hence, the owner had to be taken to task. In the industrial town of Kaliakoir, the story got covered with the fastest of speed possible. That the worker had never asked for “maternity” leave, had never informed the authorities that she was pregnant (we are forbidden to ask a worker if she is pregnant), and had only complained of abdominal cramps, and was reported to have declared that she did not want the pregnancy and was on medication to terminate it, was far from the spot.  And therefore, a supplier which has won the US department store Macy’s “Five Star Award” for four consecutive years between 2010 to 2013 “in recognition of the continued support and outstanding service”, has suddenly brought the spotlight back on Bangladesh for having an unacceptable level of labour conditions.

To begin with, Bangladesh did not need such news; the poor girl deserved to have her name hidden from the media splurge and Nasim Manzur could have been spared. Though I belong to the same world that Nasim does, where we wear different hats and juggle our roles being part of the civil society, truth is that we also don’t always have direct and immediate control of what happens on all our factory floors. Most of your columnist’s time is spent on trouble shooting issues, which the workers raise and not so much on securing business anymore. As a manufacturer, I can afford to lose business, but I cannot afford to lose my credibility. In other words, I don’t want to be the one trying not to read the papers, as long as there is a bad story out in the open. It’s like wanting to keep our eyes closed pretending to play night when the entire daylight of accusations plague us every time we open our eyes for want of light.

Now where is the light in all this? Media is the light for the public and the private sector. Without the gatekeeping of the media, many of us would be running like headless chickens sans accountability. Having said that, this will also not be an honest commentary if your columnist does not mention that media, too, needs to cover all sides of the story before bringing sensational headlines to public attention. Since we tread on an economy that thrives because of exports, and since these exports are often dependent on mid-level management on the floors, as much as we will have to educate our supervisory level to act with utmost caution and sensitivity, the story of the private sector must also be accurately portrayed to the rest.

People engaged in honest businesses with no bad debts to their names deserve better. And one incident should never prompt media shaming and one incident in isolation should never smear a lifetime of honour, achievement and credibility.

As much as it is possible for any of us to fall prey to extremely unfortunate happenings on factory premises, one must sympathise with the simple fact that it takes decades for an entrepreneur to earn repute, soar to the skies, and suddenly sadly crash below as the wings of wax melt in the heat of the sun.

Alas, Icarus. You deserve a full flight.

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