The Hurt of the Average

 Published in: The Daily Star on March 4, 2015

WE are objective and neutral in our assessment when it comes to sourcing”, announced a brand’s moderator in a conference held for the benefit of twenty global manufacturers in Hong Kong forty-eight hours ago. Sitting right by the Harbour with a splendid view of the waves crashing against the rocks, the meeting soothed most of us while we listened to the stories from the other readymade garment suppliers from the other parts of the world, namely Pakistan, India, China and Myanmar. The brand, which had organized the conference was sincere in its attempt to bring all of us together and did actually give us an opportunity to interact and gauge what the others were doing. Sitting almost in a cluster at the front, the six of the manufacturers from Bangladesh “objectively”, were possibly the star performers but we certainly did not have the winning edge over the others. We can argue as much as we want to and assure the pace of economy and say that we are growing, or at least sustaining ourselves, but, in reality, we are not growing in the direction we ought to. Having 4422 factories in the country may apparently spell a promising story, but it does not tell one of substance.

The conference had six brilliant stories to share. Once again, the stories were neutrally chosen and they represented the global vision and the achievement of the entrepreneurs. One, in Pakistan, was shredding discarded, old jeans and turning them into yarns and then weaving them back into a garment once again. One in Suzhou (China) had a factory of only 1200 workers, which supported five units and was producing light women’s wear for the top brands of the world. For them, value addition was key. The other, once again, in Suzhou, was all about “speed production” with a lead-time of 7 weeks from China to Europe. One from Korea happened to be a top performer in fabric and garments both, who had invested in Indonesia, China, Korea and Myanmar and had a Chinese General Manager to present his case. Another story was from yet another Chinese manufacturer who has chosen Myanmar to manufacture his lightweight garments and Bangladesh as his destination for joint collaboration in ladies’ jackets. The last tale of success was from an Indian, which was perhaps the biggest of them all, who had multi-capabilities, manufactured all types of garments and shared with us that boards ought to only look at capex (capital expenditures) and audits while the core job had to be intelligently delegated. The six of us from Bangladesh had nothing to be proud of except our capacities that we have built over the last three decades based on an as-and-when-needed basis. We hardly excelled in technology, good practices, efficiencies or energy conservation. While we exchanged our business cards with them, made contacts and listened to what the successful others had to say, at our end, we remained disillusioned.

We concluded that the only thing that we could really be proud of was how we sent our export trucks to cross our daily battlefields en route to Chittagong and how we still maintained a 96 percent to 98 percent on-time delivery performance. The only thing that we could have possibly shared was our story of helplessness against the burning trucks, damaging properties and killing people. While many say that the ready made garment industry will reach a $50 billion when Bangladesh turns 50, one would have to be careful and think about the actual value addition, retention, margins, and the multi faceted challenges that this sector will have to cope with in the next decade in order to simply survive. One ought not to take the success of RMG for granted as the sector remains deeply knotted in political outcomes.

Readymade garment manufacturers, of late, have resorted to human chains and hunger strikes, et al. In the past a few attempts have been taken to initiate dialogues between the two warring political sides. These have all been in vain. Political leaders consider businessmen to fall under the morally suspect category. It is said that politics is best left to politicians and that businessmen, with their apparent pledge of “neutrality,” should remain where they ought to be, i.e. in their sectors where they play their roles out. Today, the same neutrality hurts, just because, in spite of being top performers on a global scale of garment manufacturing, two days ago, at the conference, none of the Bangladeshi vendors had a single story of success to share with the other players from the rest of the world, except our single selling point of “resilience”, which we play out over and over again when we speak of our political adversities in the country, explaining that in spite of all the bombs being hurled at us, in spite of all the uncertainty that cripples the political climate, we businessmen move on and contribute to the current growth of the country. But for how long can we just speak of our survival mode and when exactly shall we instead be able to speak of excellence in vision and performance?

In a country where there is a deep divide between consensus and conflict, where the cleavage between two sides is at its sharpest, one ought to examine the moral basis of simply periodically announcing economic progress without any promise or a planned pattern. To the best of my intuition that stems from being in the trade for no less than two decades and I differ and hold that the readymade garment sector will not survive beyond the next decade if, in the name of democracy, violence continues to swell and people continue to be burnt alive.

A rare white elephant, the pink-tinged pachyderm was captured in a forest reserve in the Irrawaddy Delta area in Myanmar on Monday. A white elephant is apparently a sign of “political prosperity” for a former junta-run country. With the elections edging, Myanmar is betting all its cards in favour of a functioning democracy. If in spite of Rohingyas remaining a critical issue for the government in Myanmar, and in spite of the recent rebellion of the ethnic Chinese, Myanmar is spotting white elephants, maybe it would be a good idea to import some white elephants to our borders and pray for peace instead? Shall we?

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