It is difficult to say as to what extent the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is able to influence the decision of the global apparel buyers. Yet the request made by the Bangladesh authorities to this international body to dissuade the buyers from cancelling their work orders given to apparel factories does highlight a sense of desperation on the part of the former.
The state minister for labour and employment while taking part in a 'virtual global summit on Covid-19 and the world of work' late last week wanted the ILO to play a role in saving livelihoods of workers in the Bangladesh RMG sector. Cancellation of work orders would inevitably lead to factory layoff or closure. And the workers would be the first casualty as they would be thrown out of jobs in one of the most difficult situations that the world has ever witnessed.
The international buyers, either due to pressure coming from consumers at home or for some other reasons, have always been sympathetic to the cause of workers. The remediation of garment factories following the collapse of the Rana Plaza and a number of factory from fires during the past few years is a testimony to that fact. The Alliance and the Accord, two platforms of international buyers, played an important role in ensuring physical safety and security of workers in a good number of local garment factories in recent years.
Unfortunately, the buyers have not been equally interested in protecting livelihood issues of the RMG workers. It is no denying that wages that the RMG workers receive in Bangladesh are one of the lowest in the world. A 'decent' living continues to be a daydream for most workers because of the low wage. Thus, workers are a dissatisfied lot. Their employers, too, are unhappy because they find the latest wage structure is a burden on them. The RMG owners have been arguing that the international buyers are reluctant to offer them the fair price. The business interests, obviously, do dominate the minds of the buyers when they strike purchase deals.
Now, the issue has gone beyond wages. The very livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers have come under threat because of the Covid-19 pandemic. A good number of factories, mostly in the RMG sector, are now closed or laid off because of cancellation of work orders and non-availability of sufficient new orders. Already workers numbering between 10,000 and 15,000 have lost their jobs and many more are likely to join them in the coming days if the ongoing situation persists for long.
The RMG export revenues during the immediate past fiscal do highlight how bad the situation is. The export earnings from woven and knit textiles declined by 19 per cent in the immediate past financial year and the current flow of orders coming from international buyers is estimated between 40 and 50 per cent of the usual one. Without a turnaround trend in place as far as demand is concerned, it is most likely that some more RMG units would have to pull down their shutters in the near future, leading to further shedding of jobs. However, much would depend on the Covid situation in the major destinations of Bangladesh apparels.