In an exclusive conversation with Dhaka Tribune’s Saddam Hossain, Rubana Haque -- the first female president of BGMEA and a leading businessperson -- shares her vision for the future of the country’s garments industry and the challenges women have to face in leadership positions in Bangladesh
You had to break a lot of barriers to become the first female president of the BGMEA, and also, run a well-known conglomerate. Tell us what that was like.
It wasn’t an easy route for me, it was a rough road. I think it happened because of my courage and honesty. I always focused on my work and moved forward. It was difficult, for a woman needs to work twice as hard to prove herself.
I think gender should not play a role in leadership positions because when a woman achieves that role, there is no doubt that she deserves it. Life for me is more like a project and we compartmentalize our priorities.
Leading a large corporate entity like the BGMEA is not an easy task, one has to steer through different challenges and face a lot of hostility. But finally, the point is we are in a country where the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a woman, the inspiration to all women. We follow her conviction, her dedication. So, as a South Asian and as a Bangladeshi, I feel pride in having had the opportunity to lead the single biggest trade association in the country.
We know, more than 70% of the total workers of the apparel sector are women. As a woman, what gender-neutral policies have you implemented in your factories - such as maternal leaves, paternal leaves, child care centres, or anti-harassment policies?
In our organizations, there are basic practices of the anti-harassment committees and maternity leaves. In fact, a couple of the companies of our group have the facilities of paternal leaves. Moreover, we have very good child care centres and also have schools for our workers’ children.
We introduced a visual educational model at our child care centres where young kids can learn visually. This model was introduced by Shamsul Bari, who was the director for UNHCR. He brought this model to our factories and we are working well with this. We also introduce online education, fair price shops for our workers’ children. I think these are very basic facilities we are providing, and we ought to do much better.
Our apparel sector heavily relies on unskilled employees, especially women. Have you created any capacity-building workshops to build new skills?
Very often we see that women empowerment becomes a very critical discourse. In spite of having more than 70% of workers being female, does empowerment really happen?
We achieved a lot but a lot more has to be done. For the first time in the country, we started a project with the Asian University of Women and sent our workers there for their education. I feel pride and happiness about the fact that we have been able to change the traditional perception of a few going to university.
The underprivileged also have the dream of going to a university, a garment worker who works on a sewing machine can also achieve a dream for a bright future. We are able to give them courage and little support.
Our main export destinations are the EU and the USA, also we have a limited basket to import. Should Bangladesh find new markets in Asia and the Pacific region and improve export baskets?
Bangladesh should diversify its markets. ASEAN could be the best option because ASEAN is a huge untapped market and ASEAN is going to be the leading economic market by 2030.
So, it is important for us to increase trade between the ASEAN countries. Our current export to ASEAN is less than $300 million. We also need FDI inflows from ASEAN countries to Bangladesh.
But for FDI from ASEAN, we are not really doing well. I think there is enough rationalization to deepen economic integration between Bangladesh and ASEAN countries. Lots of policies in this regard should be introduced.
Since export from Bangladesh to ASEAN countries is significantly low, I think product diversification, market diversification, and assessment will help Bangladesh to achieve the desired integration process.
Bangladesh should also actively pursue FDI from these countries and bilateral trade relations. Also, our country needs massive improvement in infrastructure and trade logistics.
How can the apparel sector keep pace with 4IR?
The skill, scope and pace of 4IR will change the industry and lives. So, the line between technology and people is constantly becoming blurred.
AI already has reinvented the digital economy and soon will readdress the physical one too. AI will help autonomous machinery to navigate the physical world to help humans. Currently, 8% of total industries are automated and hope to achieve 22% by 2025 without impacting livelihood.
It’s not easy to follow Foxconn or any other companies planning to replace humans with robots. I think we have to realize that technology like 3D printing could be very helpful for us. For instance, Fashion items to bioprinting, leading to bio-organs printing - everything is done by 3D printers.
If we print our spare parts with the help of 3D printers, that will be interesting. We need to realize that innovation, productivity, and inclusive growth are what is needed to sustain in the 4IR. By ensuring upskilling, we are hopeful about the 4IR.
The concerned buyers are turning to green, sustainable and eco-friendly products. In this case, what should we do other than building green factories?
In terms of going green, now we have a huge number of green factories. The challenge is that the environment-friendly economy is just not a concept, it is the future. We are now standing at a point that we cannot afford to use virgin material at a rate we are consuming right now.
We have to play a huge role here and shifting this linear model of the economy to the circular model is the major base to stop the consumption of resources. We need to close the current loop.
The wide-scale adaptation of the circular model will reduce the carbon emissions in the fashion industry. We need to maximize the value of textile waste. We must trace the value chain of waste with proper sorting management.
Comprehensive circular economic policy is an essential requirement for Bangladesh so that we can regulate the highly unregulated business with textile wastage of Bangladesh.
If we can do these properly, Bangladesh has a solid possibility to becoming one of the leading examples by building a circular economy. So, the earlier, the better.
The pandemic hit all the business sectors of the world. What has the RMG sector learned from this?
Of course, we learned alot from the pandemic. I have learned the best thing is “Isolation”, live alone but yet not lonely. The readymade garments sector learned a huge lesson from the pandemic.
The major thing is finding a balance between the manufacturers and our buyers. At the early stages, buyers started cancelling orders and we started negotiations, to make them understand and ultimately it worked out and brought good for us.
It brought the opportunity of better understanding between us. We learned about the shifting demand of buyers during pandemics like home wear, casual products and customized orders. We also learned how online shopping grew significantly. We also learned about innovation and flexibility during the pandemic.