Some of the world's top apparel brands were set to stay away from the just concluded Dhaka Apparel Summit alleging repression of trade unions in the country and denial of labour rights. However, at the last moment, when they withdrew from their stand and took part in the high profile annual event, it felt like a relief -- though not a long lasting one.
Since the Rana Plaza and Tazreen disasters, the country's garment sector experienced a lot of changes. Improving workplace environment was indeed the main priority, as most big foreign buyers, under pressure of international labour right groups, made it a point not to procure products produced in unsafe working atmosphere. Over the years, things have definitely changed for the better with large-scale improvement on various safety aspects. But the issue of labour right, a longstanding one, has still remained a matter of grave concern. This got very strongly reflected in the Press Release issued jointly by two of the most influential international rights groups -- IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, prior to the Apparel Summit. The wording of the Press Release was loud and clear. It said, "Leading garment brands, including H&M, Inditex, C&A and Tchibo will not be attending the Apparel Summit in the Bangladeshi capital ….. Absence of global brands at the Apparel Summit, an international event which will be inaugurated by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, sends a clear message to the Bangladesh garment industry that so long as workers and trade unionists are being arrested and intimidated for speaking up for the rights of garment workers, there will be no business as usual".
The change in the decision of the apparel brands was not for nothing. Reportedly, it was the release of the garment workers detained since December last year and assurance of the government to attend the labour rights issues that somehow salvaged the situation, for the moment. According to a statement of IndustriALL, majority of the 35 Bangladeshi unionists and garment workers arrested since December have been released, and the remaining others would be released shortly. A tripartite agreement was reached on February 23 between IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, the Labour Ministry and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, providing for the release of the arrested trade unionists and workers. According to the agreement, those remaining will also be freed and cases against them will be disposed of. IndustriALL Global Union General Secretary Valter Sanches welcomed the decision of releasing the detained unionists and workers.
No wonder, this looks like an arrangement to save the situation and lends some hope to make one convinced that labour rights in the garment industry in the country would be addressed in a fair manner. The Ashulia incident in December last year did reflect that the government and garment exporters were more or less alike in the way they preferred to address the rights issue. During the Ashulia agitation, both the government and the industry owners wanted to make sure that production was not held back. So, it was actually the ploy to keep the factories in operation that apparently served well to arrest the labour activists and the workers. Referring to the manner in which the Ashulia agitation was 'quelled', spokesperson of the UNI Global Union commented that the crackdown was 'about denying workers in the Bangladesh garment industry the right to organise unions and collectively bargain for decent wages. We call on the Bangladesh government and the BGMEA to put a halt to this harassment and respect the workers who create wealth for their country while receiving a pittance.' IndustriALL Global Union assistant general secretary Jenny Holdcroft said there was no sustainable future for the readymade garment industry in Bangladesh without respect for labour rights.
Here lies the crux of the matter. Can Bangladesh really look up to a sustainable RMG future without mitigating the rights issue? How far can the industry advance through botched-up solutions, reliant mostly on assurances? The industry didn't experience any noticeable labour unrest during its infancy or in its maturing stage, say a decade back. But as it began to grow meteorically and is still in the process of growth with more than four million workers pushing it up to become the second largest manufacturing hub in the world, there is no way to skirt past the practices that govern labour welfare.
In the Summit, participants called for ensuring decent working conditions and allowing trade unions for sustainable development of the $28 billion-garment industry in Bangladesh. They also suggested all stakeholders, mainly global clothing brands and manufacturers, to work together to ensure compliance, better prices, technology upgrade and enhanced productivity.
We have had many incidents of labour unrest in the past years, some quite prolonged, and made worse by arson, deaths and destruction. The industry had to pay heavily. Many factories had their export orders cancelled; many lost their trusted clients overseas. Even though the incidents were brought under 'control', the element of uncertainty never left. Isn't it high time that all stakeholders looked into the matter seriously in order for the industry to look up to a sustainable future?