Reported on: June 22, 2012 13:30 PM
Reported in: National
Dhaka, June 22 (UNB)-Already hit hard by the global economic downturn, the country’s largest foreign-currency earning readymade garment (RMG) industry is now at stake.
A weeklong labour unrest has wreaked havoc with the most-promising industry, forcing the owners to shut down factories in RMG industrial belt Ashulia. The ongoing efforts by the parties concerned have not broken the standoff, raising a million-dollar question in public mind: what is actually going on? Is it an effort to destroy the RMG sector? Who does stand to benefit from the destruction of the industry?
There have been persistent reports that some external groups always try to fish in the troubled waters spreading rumours about unfair management practices so that workers become restless and create unrest against the garment management. Amid the escalating tension, intelligence officials say that some vested quarters, both local and foreign, have long been involved in the dirty game. They have identified five broad categories of vested quarters as playing a role in destabilising the country’s export-oriented sector.
They said the first category of the troublemakers consists of some foreigners based in India and China and their local collaborators like NGOs and businesspeople. The foreigners, the intelligence officials said, carry out their activities through NGOs under cover of promoting human rights and providing training to Bangladeshi workers in the name of their skill development.
“These foreign quarters find Bangladesh a tough competitor in their business in the international market due to cheap labour in Bangladesh,” one intelligence official said.
They think the abolishing of quota regime followed by the emergence of Bangladesh as a competitor is a major problem for them. They say the labour laws in Bangladesh are not as stringent as they should have been. The salaries paid to the workers are also very low by international standards.
The intelligent sources said another group of behind-the-scene players is local union leaders. They, in fact, draw their wages without working and avail of undue facilities from the garment factory owners serving their vested interests.
“Yet another vested group is local elected public representatives. This group remote-controls many things. They exert their influence on garment factory owners in many ways and receive a particular amount of money from the owners every month in the name of ensuring a stable working atmosphere in their factories. Besides, this political group has their own sycophants for whom they manage Jhut (scrap cloths) business.
“And the problem breaks out when this equation between the owners and the political leaders collapses,” said one of the intelligence officials. Another reason identified by the intelligence behind the frequent RMG sector violence is unhealthy competition among the garment owners.
According to the intelligence officials, there is a group of garment factory owners who instigate trouble in the factories of their ‘rivals’ with an ill-motive to hire the efficient workers of that particular factory to improve their own productivity.
There are even some garment owners who get foreign orders for six months and make enough money during this period and simply sit idle during the rest six months of the year. “Therefore, they look for an excuse to create a trouble and thus shut down the factory for six months. They take initiatives to reopen the factory only when they get a fresh order,” said an intelligence official.
People have reasons to believe in ‘conspiracy theories’ where the image of Bangladesh is being deliberately tarnished abroad to sidetrack Bangladesh in the international market. Critics say reports are frequently published by a section of media in the UK on Bangladesh apparel sector’s non-compliance with international standards. In their reports, they focus on the sick units in and outside the capital. Local analysts say more than 80 percent of the factories are compliant, yet the media outlets are only showing the problem factories. On top of this, there is a British non-government organisation (NGO) which is campaigning that Bangladesh pays an exploitative hourly wage of only 5.0 cents to its workers, in contrast to the 5.0 pounds in the UK, encouraging Britons not to buy clothes from stores that sell Bangladeshi apparels.
On the Surface
The workers believe that they are always exploited by the owners. Therefore, the most overt reason of labour unrest in the garment sector are wage rate and unpaid wage. Some garment owners do not pay salaries and overtime allowance to the workers on time. However, owners claim that more than 90 percent factories pay worker’s wages within the first and the second week of the month.
Analysts following the garments industry say RMG workers are becoming more conscious about work-life balance. Workers in the garment sector are reluctant to take extra workload, avoid long shift, do not prefer to work at the weekend, and even dislike overtime in many cases. Financial benefits seem to be no longer powerful enough to keep the workers for overtime. So, the garment factory with less workload and overtime facility attracts more workers.
Sirajul Islam Ronny, coordinator of the Garments Sramik Oikya Parishad, the garment workers went for the movement discretely to press for their demands, including pay hike as they have no trade union and organised leadership to lead them. He alleged that some vested quarters, particularly some local influential people, jhut (scrap cloths) traders and international NGOs were involved in the recent chaos. “These people who are working in the name of development and welfare of garments workers are behind the recent violence at RMG units.” Ronny also accused the factory owners of playing a dubious role by keeping the factories closed.
Environment and Forests Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud on June 17 alleged that the BNP leaders who recently got out of jail on bail are behind the violence by garment workers in Ashulia. “They’re (opposition) hatching a conspiracy to stop the wheel of the economy and the progress in the RMG export.”
Hasan Mahmud said no one would be allowed to stop the ‘wheel of progress’ through any conspiracy. “We’ll stand against it (conspiracy) with the people of the country.”
BNP acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir on June 19 slammed the government for what he said destroying the country’s export-oriented garment sector through its poor handling of the evolving situation. “The government is ruining the garment sector due to its failure to tackle the emerging situation.”
US Ambassador in Dhaka Dan W Mozena has warned that Bangladesh’s readymade garment industry is facing a possible storm stemming from recent unrest in the sector. Many US buyers have already expressed concern for the reputation of their brands, as Bangladesh is a massive supplier of apparel items to the US, he said.
“I’ve been contacted by a huge number of US buyers who expressed concerns over the reputation of the garment products of Bangladesh,” Mozena told reporters after a meeting with Finance Minister AMA Muhith at the Ministry on June 11.
BBC’s South Asia analyst Shahzeb Jillani says there are fears that unless the country resolves its worsening trade relations, the standoff could tarnish the Bangladeshi brand in the long run.
The RMG sector is the largest source of foreign exchange earning in Bangladesh. There are more than 3,500 RMG factories in the country, where over 7 million workers are employed. It is evident that workers are frequently creating unrests in this sector. If things keep going on like this it will cause a social catastrophe in the country since the millions of female workers have little or no prospect of alternative employment. If the ongoing dispute isn’t resolved soon, the workers have the most to lose.