This article discusses the labour situation in Bangladesh. At the outset, it is important to understand that there is a concerted global campaign to present a bleak picture of workers, primarily in the garment sector, whether their minimum emoluments, whether their health and safety, and whether their vulnerabilities at their place of work. This is nothing exclusive about Bangladesh because these same charges and concerns are narrated about many a country. These critics allege that the fabulous growth of garment exports of Bangladesh has not filtered down to the workers. It goes without saying that not everything is hunky-dory in the industrial relations environment but the fact is that the formal garment sector has made tremendous headway in addressing the issues and has been pro-active in redressing concerns of domestic workers. The initiatives of the big garment players have been and are being emulated by other exporters down the line.
The International Trade Union Confederation, based in Brussels, and superbly led by General Secretary Ms Sharan Burrow annually comes out with the ITUC Global Rights Index. The latest report states that “for the past eight years (Bangladesh) is one of the ten worst countries in the world for working people in 2021”. The report bemoans that despite government’s commitment to ILO, the reforms have not been implemented in letter and spirit. There are usual allegations made every year about “repressive laws, obstacles to union formation, and brutal repression of strikes”. On the other hand, the employers emphatically state that the critics are not looking at the larger picture but focusing on issues that both the government and the employers have made substantial progress by introducing reforms and making a positive paradigm shift.
An enlightened garment exporter, in his Whatsapp message to the writer, elucidated that “the readymade garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh has empowered women and given them control over their family purse strings that has resulted in children getting better education and opportunities to move ahead. Freedom of Association and Unions are allowed except in EPZs where they have workers welfare representatives. Generally, happy and contented workers don’t form unions. Today, Bangladesh has the safest RMG factories in the world in terms of Civil Construction, Electrical and Fire Safety. The RMG sector is planning to have a Code of Conduct for US and EU buyers. Their claims, cancellations, and low unsustainable prices will be shared with others. This year Bangladesh has exported nearly $43 billion RMG to Gold Standard Buyers in the EU and USA. These buyers monitor everything related to people and planet causing huge compliance fatigue for the factory owners. ITUC should approach these buyers and associations, like RSC and Nirapon, set up by leading brands and retailers to monitor and control compliance”.
Nirapon is a non-profit organization of more than 50 members globally who share a common goal of maintaining high safety standards and management systems in 330 supplying factories in Bangladesh and to cultivate a safe working environment for factories, workers, managers and owners. The RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) is an unprecedented private national tripartite initiative to carry forward the significant accomplishments made in workplace safety in Bangladesh.
A senior person, representing Bangladesh employers, who is extensively involved in tripartite industrial relations, very candidly stated in his Whatsapp message that “The ITUC report is a repetition and continuation of previous year’s report. Although quite sweeping, I am not surprised with it. I am not claiming this is a complete misrepresentation, but there is plenty of fabrication and exaggeration. If there is so much of non-compliance then why would compliant brands continue procuring from Bangladesh?”
Elaborating pragmatically, a well-known factory owner, in his Whatsapp message, stated that “RMG is a labour intensive industry. Buyers can support factory by advance booking of existing capacity, making serious projections and commitments, and collaborate with Supplier/Factory in planning production. Otherwise, the factories operations are disrupted, cost efficiencies not met, and losses incurred. Multiple audits by buyers also add cost and disrupt production. The major international retailers and brands are much bigger and richer than the RMG factory owners. The western consumer is much better positioned to pay a dollar more for a garment. Unfortunately, most western buyers ruthlessly negotiate to maximize their margins. Asking for discounts claiming poor sales, giving unjustified claims and cancellations is not uncommon. They threaten factory owners to move their buying and leaving the factory idle leading to worker retrenchment. Instead, these brands should pay a fair price since costing is easy and transparent for garment manufacturing. The welfare of a RMG worker is also dependent on the commitments, projections, planning and ethics of the western buyers. It is critical that all parties work on a Win-Win approach keeping in mind that if one factory loses then workers lose too”.
The preferences of international brands must be mentioned. They are keen to work with garment suppliers of Bangladesh since it suits them favorably. The monthly Minimum Wage in Bangladesh is BD Taka 8000 (about US$ 85) which is comparably much cheaper than the Minimum Wage in Pakistan, India or Sri Lanka. Hence, they can buy at a much lower price than from other regional countries because of the cheap labour in the supply chain. The ILO Better Work Programme is also in operation there (Pakistan has recently received this status and this writer passionately advocated for it during tenure as President Employers Federation of Pakistan). Moreover, there is huge support for the RMG sector from the government as this enables the manufacturers to enjoy the benefits of these government incentives. The Bangladeshi government wants to protect the central tower of strength of the country’s economy since it directly employs 4.50 million people, mostly women, and contributes 12% to the country’s GDP. In fact, in those companies that are under the Better Work Programme, nearly 60% of the workers are women. How much of this largesse is filtered down to the workers? Each factory has its own policies in that respect.
One prime reason why there is so much hue and cry over labour rights in Bangladesh is because of the presence and influence of sweatshops. Although it is an accepted fact that sweatshops have a lackadaisical approach towards safety and health of the worker, are negligent in providing Minimum Wage, force workers to labour for long hours, are not willing to provide transportation, especially to women workers, and are dead against even the concept of a worker’s union, these factors create a very negative perception of the entire RMG sector. Maybe this is the time, especially after the effects of the pandemic crisis, to introduce labour law reforms, to work with worker federations, buyers, large manufacturers, and NGOs to gradually initiate better working conditions, to ensure minimum wage, to end violence and harassment at the workplace, and to motivate the owners of sweatshops to provide a safe and healthy working environment.
There is also an imperative need for the Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF), the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) with total support from the ten top RMG exporters, such as Posh Garments, Ha-Meem Group, BEXIMCO Apparel, Square Fashions, etc, and the National Coordination Committee for Workers’ Education (NCCWE) to sit together and commence a social dialogue. Both BEF and NCCWE, like Employers Federation of Pakistan and Pakistan Workers Federation, are constituents of ILO. It is about time the Bangladesh stakeholders emulated the initiatives taken by, we, the enlightened employers and moderate worker leadership who formed the Workers Employers Bilateral Council of Pakistan (WEBCOP) in 2000 (name coined by me). Over the last two decades, both stakeholders literally sit on the same side of the table and ensuring that union-owners’ issues are settled through a dialogue rather than taking any legal recourse. It is time for a WEBCOB in Bangladesh.
The message to them is to survive and prosper in the new Normal World, and that can be done if they move fast, embrace change, and collaborate. They have to work together to achieve the BGMEA target of US$ 100 billion by 2030. At the World Economic Forum in Davos few years ago, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed stated, “We are highly committed to ensuring compliance with regard to labour rights, workplace safety, and environmental standards in the industry.”Majyd Aziz, "Industrial relations in Bangladesh RMG," Business recorder. 2022-07-20.
Keywords: Economics , World economic , Labour situation , WhatsApp message , Ms Sharan Burrow , Sheikh Hasina Wajed , Pakistan , India , Bangladesh , Sri Lanka , ITUC , ILO , RMG , RSC , GDP , BGMEA , NCCWE