Closure of readymade garment factories not the solution
THE decision of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association to suspend operations of more than 300 apparel units at Ashulia for an indefinite period, starting from Sunday, amid labour unrest in demand for increase in wages is indeed worrisome. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Sunday, when informing the press of the association’s decision at a news conference on Saturday, the BGMEA president also warned that the apparel factory owners would shut all apparel units across the country if the situation continued. The apparel industry continues to be a cornerstone of the economy, employing more than four million people, a majority of whom are women, and earning billions of dollars every year. Indefinite closure of a sizeable section of the apparel units would thus have an adverse impact on the economy and the workers, resulting in chaos and uncertainty. The silver lining in the cloud is that the closure of the apparel units at Ashulia looks to be a mere tactical move by the BGMEA; after all, the owners, many of whom have literally risen from rags to riches by dint of readymade garments export, cannot simply afford indifferent suspension of production at their factories.
In any case, the employee-employer standoff in the RMG sector needs to be resolved, effectively and expeditiously, but a sustainable resolution is unlikely to come by if the BGMEA sticks to its position on the workers’ legitimate demands. The BGMEA president’s argument that there is no justification for any increase in the wages of the workers as the owners raises their pay by 80 per cent in November 2010 is outrageous, to say the least. Perhaps, the factory owners need to have a closer look at how their own expenditure has skyrocketed in the past one year and a half amid spiralling cost of living and raging inflation. Such an argument seems to reflect the general indifference of the factory owners to the workers’ welfare. Indeed, many RMG factories have become compliant in the past few years and made upward revisions of workers’ wages. However, such compliance and upward revision, it is pertinent to recall, have come about because of pressure from importers in the West and a series of often-violent workers’ agitations at home, respectively. In other words, the factory owners have hardly taken any measures aimed at workers’ welfare on their own. Most importantly, all these years, while the RMG industry has had a phenomenal growth, the factory owners have not been able to institute a reasonable pay structure for the workers.
Indeed, as the BGMEA president suggested, there may be a conspiracy by local and external forces to create instability in the RMG industry. However, as we have maintained in these columns all along, such conspiracies, if any, only gain traction when the genuine grievances and legitimate demands of the workers are not addressed in time and when the workers are subjected to institutional repression and exploitation. The state itself is also responsible for the simmering discontent in the apparel sector. While it has instituted industrial police to cope with labour unrest, it has deprived the workers of their rights to healthy trade unionism. Most importantly, it has looked the other way when the law enforcers, and also hired goons of some factory owners, resorted to excesses to quell labour unrest. Deaths and disappearances of dissenting voices in the RMG sector have also been reported. For example, Aminul Islam, well-known labour leader was found dead, with severe marks of torture on his body, after his disappearance from near his workplace at Ashulia.
Overall, there seems to be a serious trust deficit in the employee-employer relations in the apparel industry, which can be largely attributed to the factory owners’ reluctance to ensure workers’ welfare. Such a situation, needless to say, is unsustainable. Hence, the factory owners need to be sincere, in reality and perception, to effectively address the workers’ grievances and win their trust. The national economy cannot without the RMG sector while the factory owners cannot produce wealth without the workers. The workers, on the other hand, cannot demand pay-hike if there is no work. Therefore, the government needs to be responsive to both sides, not only to the employers as it appears to have been thus far.
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