There are two pictures of our ready-made garment industry. One is about the key driving force of our economy, the story of an industry that helps millions of poverty-stricken people to secure an income -- this is a success story of our apparel makers who make the country proud by securing a place as one of the top three apparel exporting countries.
And there is another picture in which we see the burned corpses of our apparel industry workers. We see workers are crushed to death under the rubble of buildings.
We see workers are being exploited. We see many workers block roads as they are not paid on time -- and then we see workers are being remanded for demanding pay raises.
I had the chance to witness these two faces of our RMG industry while covering two recent events. One is an international trade show of our apparel makers, and the other the workers’ agitation in Ashulia.
In the trade show and its seminars, the much discussed issue is the $50 billion export vision by 2021 -- it is ambitious of us to work to achieve Vision 2021 from our existing $28bn exports. One thing I observed in those seminars was that the role of workers was not discussed much in the narrative of this $50bn vision, and it seemed like our RMG industry was not really concerned about the workers in their 2021 Vision.
Just as the RMG owners are not thinking about the workers in their vision, workers too are not paying any heed to this vision. While talking to workers, I have found that many of them are not aware of the $50bn export vision; and they lack any motivation to help the industry reach new heights.
So the question is: Is it possible to achieve the $50bn vision while ignoring the workers?
We cannot deny that the fate of our RMG workers is not changing in line with the progress of our RMG industry -- this can easily be understood by a quick visit to the slums in Ashulia and other places where RMG workers reside.
Many of them are struggling to manage their basic needs. Our apparel industry workers are among the lowest paid employees in the world. And so, this question is always legitimate: If the industry makes substantial progress, why shouldn’t we pay a decent salary to our workers?
It is obvious that with the increasing living cost in Dhaka and Chittagong, it is quite difficult to pay for a family’s basic needs with Tk5,300 a month.
We cannot deny that the fate of our RMG workers is not changing in line with the progress of our RMG industry
So, the demand for a pay raise or supporting the demand is not illogical, nor is it a crime. However, the response of the administration and owners make many second-guess the workers’ protest for higher pay as a crime.
When workers raised their demands, owners and the local administration allegedly carried out crackdowns on the workers. Some workers were arrested and remanded, and are leading a much worse life now. I have spoken to family members of a few workers, and realised how anxious they are about their future.
Unprecedentedly, a journalist was also arrested and remanded in custody. We have seen the administration file ridiculous allegations against him. Why should a journalist be arrested for covering an event in a democratic society?
I cannot fathom one simple aspect of these recent developments: What makes the RMG owners and administration think they can improve the image of our RMG industry worldwide by conducting crackdowns on workers for a legitimate protest carried out by the workers?
Unfortunately, thanks to this crackdown, the news was covered by all major media outlets. It is safe to say that their response did not help the reputation of their business around the world.
We have created a tradition in Bangladesh that people who are advocating workers’ rights are conspirators against our “cash cow” RMG industry.
We often label them as traitors. Workers’ rights in the RMG industry seems to be an issue no one is allowed to talk about. I don’t understand how a section of people can think in this way in our country.
I believe that people who are raising the issues of workers’ rights in the RMG industry are actually helping the industry.
They want to see the industry become a sustainable market. We want to see the Bangladeshi apparel industry dominate the global market in the long run.
And for a sustainable industry, we must take the workers’ rights into consideration. If workers do not have motivation or any vision, our RMG industry will not be sustainable. Workers who struggle to manage their basic needs cannot be productive.
The first thing RMG owners and the administration should do to work toward their 2021 Vision is improve the workers’ welfare. It is only a productive workforce that can take our RMG industry to new heights.
Mushfique Wadud is a journalist.