Critiquing how the country’s RMG workers are handled by factory owners, noted economist Prof Rehman Sobhan stressed the need for reform to increase workers’ stake in the industry.
He said the factory owners should acknowledge that the only reason Bangladesh is a global competitive supplier of garment products today is because of their partnership with their workers.
He made the observation Saturday during his concluding remarks on a dialogue titled ‘Ongoing Upgradation in RMG Enterprises: Preliminary Results from a Survey.’ The dialogue was organized by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) to share the findings of an interim report based on an enterprise and worker level survey in Bangladesh’s RMG enterprises, conducted under a study titled “New Dynamics in Bangladesh’s Apparels Enterprises: Perspectives on Restructuring, Upgradation and Compliance Assurance.”
Prof Rehman Sobhan said: “No entrepreneur has made the garment industry globally competitive through their management and entrepreneurship skills. It is your workers who have made you globally competitive in the garment industry because of their low wage.
“Today, there is no natural, social, economic or managerial divide between workers and factory owners in managing, running and making a competitive modern industry. So, the way in which you deal with your workers and the terms of their ownership relationship, participation and stake in the industry should be very different.
“I do not believe that in the 21st century the collective bargaining model is old, and is in fact a sustainable and competitive model. You have to take the workers as your partners now and you have to make them stakeholders in your industry.”
He asked factory owners to explore the possibility of giving the workers shares in the industry and to invest and train them so that they do not leave to work in another industry for higher wage, adding that “They will stay with you because you have invested in their higher training and skills and that is making your company profitable, and they will be able to get a share of that profit.”
“This I would like to think of as the 21st century model which the garment sector can actually embrace. Treat them as your partners, make them your partners, invest in them, and the workers will force you to work overtime in the factory because if they work overtime, and they raise the profitability of that factory and eventually they will get a direct benefit from that.
During his speech, Rehman Sobhan also criticized the lack of unity among garment workers. Pointing out that there are about 70 federations representing garment workers in the country, he termed the situation ridiculous. He said: “How you [workers’ representatives in the industry] expect to be taken seriously if you have 70 different federations.”
He asked the representatives to constitute a few federations, if not just one, to jointly bargain for their rights. “The BGMEA does not have 10 different organizations to indulge in negotiations with you.”
He gave past examples of jute workers’ movement and praised their unity in bringing a change. “70 federations discussing little problems with their owners is an indication of non-seriousness amongst you and if your workers are to be properly represented, then you should be making demands to the trade unions themselves to do something about this.”
Prof Rehman Sobhan also drew attention of the international community and major buyers in the garment industry and talked about how all responsibility for social and economic upgradation is put on the local industry.
He said: “... if you believe in market forces, then you are not in a position to start dictating both labour standards, wages and collective action behaviour on the part of the supplying sector. Either you [the international community and all those who are seeking social ungradation in Bangladesh] believe in the market mechanism which operates at a global level or you do not.
“... You cannot come along and say that socially you [local industry] bear the cost of compliance but I [international community] will make no contribution in the buying price or the cutting and making charges that I [international community] actually give you.
Sobhan told the international community and major buyers in the garment industry to address the huge gap in the retail price and production price of RMG products before making social demands from countries like Bangladesh.
He urged the CPD and its partner organizations to make this an international issue and hold discussions on the matter.