The unstoppable

 Published in: The Daily Star on October 8, 2016
The unstoppable

Watching Trump comment on his bankruptcy was shocking. He proudly admitted: “I just took advantage of laws and did what was best for my business and my family.” That’s what most businesses do: take advantage. But things are changing fast. Most companies in the west are accountable to shareholders, consumers, activists Therefore, one just can’t do business with one’s eyes closed. That’s why every breaking news of a factory fire impacts the overall image of the country. In fact, when Tampaco was burning, one of the most reputed artists in this country tweeted, “Another garment factory burning. Am on my way.” The gentleman with many thousands of followers along with Channel 4 and other media outlets alluding to the factory as a garment factory. Comments on those links poured in and Bangladesh, once again, made it to the global centre stage.

Post 2013, the country absorbed the national shock of 1,134 lives being crushed to death and turned around. In the last three years, a total of 3,746 factories have been inspected, out of which 1,368 were under Accord, 829 under Alliance and 1,549 under the National Action Plan. Out of all these, only 39 were declared vulnerable. We ourselves have shifted three factories in one year to two locations where there is no electricity, no gas and shortage of workers. We have had to give buses for all, increased wages and incentives and have had to re-evaluate their skills and set up production lines in places where there are almost no training centres. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to relocate. And it takes time.

Majority of our workers are women. They are women with young children, who breastfeed and can’t afford to take one-hour bus rides to work, no matter how much they are paid. It was only yesterday that I had to sit and talk to ten women who wouldn’t budge from their position and refused to relocate to a new location. In spite of me trying to offer their husbands jobs, in spite of me trying to arrange their housing in the new place, they refused. These were ten very skilled operators, crucial for critical processes and without whom we will surely face critical challenges in output. But, we moved on, accepted resignations and hoped to recruit “helpers” and train them.

Relocation isn’t easy. Restarting isn’t a piece of cake. But, truth be known: Bangladesh still continues to make it there.

Therefore, the constant reports on Bangladesh not doing enough totally kill the spirit. But what helps are the occasional seminars and conferences, which wrap up with headliners encouraging the industry. One of the conferences that talk about the readymade garment sector happens to be on Friday, where BGMEA and the Dutch government bring companies, academics, activists together and address a few crucial issues. The issues embrace many key words like “collaboration” and “finance.” My point is, who are we collaborating with and who is financing the sector? For decades, the RMG sector has gone on alone and without mentionable support and the sector has made it on its own.

Brands and retailers bought from us as we were good. Brands and retailers still buy from us as we continue to be better.

Within the last one year, Bangladesh’s growth rate in the export to the world has been 10.21 percent compared to a nominal figure of 4.08 percent in 2013-2014. This is one country where RMG’s contribution to total exports went up from 3.89 percent in 1983-84 to 82.01 percent in 2015-2016. Progress doesn’t happen overnight. In spite of the United States refusing to give us duty free or refusing to restore GSP for our products other than RMG, the exports have gotten to USD 28 billion. But this does not mean that Bangladesh should not pursue economic diplomacy and continue to pursue America for the restoration of GSP. But what must happen in the process is that we must continue to explore new markets and new potential. Markets, of course, have changed. Once a major exporter to the US, Bangladesh today exports its 61.06 percent to the EU and only 20 percent to the US. Markets once totally unfamiliar to Bangladesh are now attractive export destinations. Exports to Australia (USD 636 million), and Japan (USD 774 million) have been on the rise. In fact, exports to non-traditional markets have gone up by 15.37 percent in the last one year.

None of this has happened because of any external help, apart from buyers. It has happened because of the workers and the owners. However, does Bangladesh need help? And if so, in what areas?

1. The leap for value addition: The brands need to hold our hands and place value added products in Bangladesh. The reason is simple. There is no other country in the world, except China, which can claim excellence in production lines as much as we can. This country can basically produce anything. That is why, even with little or no support, our export basket can now boast of more value added products than earlier. Back in 1993-1994, we used to export about USD 80 million worth of trousers and USD 127 million worth of jackets. Today, Bangladesh exports trousers worth USD 6.3 billion and jackets worth USD 3.7 billion. That is a clear indication of product upgradation.

2. The leap for commitment: A decade ago, World Bank Investment Climate Assessment argued that South Asian countries under-perform comparators on many areas, including employee skills and corruption. These are challenges that Bangladesh needs to overcome at lightning speed. One of the solutions is for brands to invest in long term buying commitment in Bangladesh. For example, if a supplier knows that his production lines are taken and will be filled with products year long, then there will be a leap in productivity. Product efficiency in Bangladesh runs at less than 50 percent. This can easily be addressed by consistency in buying patterns from the brands’ ends.

3. The leap for compliance: A few minutes ago, I learnt that 40 workers are resigning from one of our new factories where we have relocated. What is mind boggling is the fact that we have failed to negotiate on our deadlines. The expectation of remediating Bangladesh 100 percent within three years was a utopia that no one really believed in. But the magic was to just exert pressure and initiate the remediation. And if the factories did not comply, there would be no business. Under such circumstances, what else could we do but work in a rush and in spite of insufficient infrastructure, lack of new and skilled workers, we still carried on and built factories, carried our workers to the new sites, paid them more, got less productivity, encountered more labour related hiccups, but were finally able to tell the regulatory bodies: “Relocation complete.” Therefore, the expectation from the brands and the retailers are not unrealistic. Financing support would help, but not at the cost of time consuming bureaucratic procedural complications. But if you can’t do anything, just pay us a little more for our workers. Just a few cents. The plea is not a Younusean one for 50 cents, the plea is just to give us 15-20 cents more per piece, so that we can make ends meet.

4. The plea for design and technology: Overall public and private investment in R&D runs low and is increasingly falling behind East Asia. The tendency to under-invest in knowledge is also rampant in this part of the world. Therefore, in most cases, investments in creating skills in the workforce is seldom a priority. Design and technology in Bangladesh need to have more international exposure. Therefore, there needs to be more fashion and design schools and departments set up on joint venture basis, without which we will be scrambling at the bottom rung of the fashion and technological ladder and not be able to contribute much at all.

Very often there are sustainability seminars and discussion on the RMG sector. The first flow of the conferences covers challenges, a reference to Rana Plaza, the slow pace of remediation, the “lack” of trade unions, the need to be “more” competitive. Then the conversation steers somewhat towards the four million workers whose lives have changed because of the industry and eventually ends up with a pledge of the brands and retailers staying in Bangladesh. Let’s just get one thing straight. Bangladesh has not become the second largest exporter of apparel because of media spotlight. Bad press affects us, but does not kill us, as we know how to rise from the ashes. Negative publicity may dampen, but does not annihilate us as we are far stronger than expected. Therefore, in a world of resurgence of protectionism, climate change, decaying infrastructure, cyber attacks and human rights abuses, insufficient land, and rising costs, we don’t need prescriptions, guidelines, or counselling, we just need a few extra cents. Just pay us more and we will be perfectly fine.

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