BANGLADESH is the world's second biggest apparel exporter, China being the biggest. Bangladesh earned US$ 29 billion from its export of ready-made garment (RMG) in 2017, according to data from the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Most of our garment products go to the United States and Europe. The sector employs over four million people, many of whom are young women. The industry is crucial to the national economy as a source of employment and foreign currency.
The European Union and many international buyers observe that working conditions and payment of salaries in RMG are poor and they requested Bangladesh to improve the scenario. Despite their concern, major western brands still place orders. The goal of the garment sector should be one of achieving full compliance requirements as well as making their enterprises secure against workers' wrath by implementing decisions to increase wage and other benefits for the workers for long-term security.
Labour unrest is a common feature in our country. It has an obvious effect on disruption of economic activities, which leads to misery and hardship. The fact is that labour unrest is a common feature during industrialisation. However, labour unions are almost non-existent in the RMG sector of the country. Garment workers took to streets in recent years - sometimes in violent protests - over wages and safe working conditions. Demands were raised to fix the basic monthly wage at around $100 or around Tk 8,000.
Demanding proper wages, the garment workers recently took to streets, blocked highways, were engaged in clashes with the police, vandalised vehicles, and hurled brickbats at factories. This led to the closure of many factories.
A tri-partite committee with representatives from the government, employers and workers was formed on January 08, 2019 to review the wage structure. On January 12, the committee reached a policy consensus on the increase in the original wage of grades 3, 4 and 5. On that night, the minister of commerce and the state minister for labour and employment, along with the representatives of employers and workers, met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The Prime Minister instructed to coordinate the wages of grade 1 and 2 with grades 3, 4, 5 and 6, which is indeed a positive step. The situation has been normal by now. The workers have gone back to work.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has laid guidelines for its members to take steps to maintain safe working conditions in the factories. Already, the BGMEA has formed a monitoring committee to check any problem in the garment units that may erupt over non-payment of salaries to the workers, demand of workers for higher wages and other facilities. The monitoring teams will check any anticipated unrest in 2,000 industrial units in and around Dhaka city. The BGMEA is keeping close contacts with the buyers as well as the government. The government should play a proactive role in the interactions between the owners and the workers to avoid troubles. The BGMEA should also hold dialogues with the buyers so that they pay a little extra for garment products so that owners could improve conditions in the garment factories and pay higher wages.
Diplomatic initiatives should be taken to expand existing foreign markets as well as identifying potential markets. To be cost-competitive and to produce quality items, modern technology and training for all levels of employees working in the RMG sector are essential. At the same time the employers should ensure payment of minimum wages to the workers, their job security and better work environment. Initiatives need to be taken for improving all infrastructural facilities in the industrial units.
The government and the BGMEA should work together to overcome the existing problems in the sector and let the garment industry contribute towards developing a better economy.
Md Atikur Rahman is working as Head Public Relations Officer at BGMEA University of Fashion and Technology.
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