A shift of focus offers new hope for the Bangladesh apparel industry
“Nothing wilts faster than laurels that have been rested upon” said Percy Shelley the radical 19th Century Romantic English poet. This statement could not be more fitting as, over recent weeks, reports from various parts of the world highlight significant deficiencies in the apparel manufacturing hubs away from Bangladesh.
An article published in The New York Times in December 2019 draws attention to the plight of apparel industry workers employed in the Los Angeles region of the United States.
The article highlights maltreatment of workers, appallingly low salaries being paid, and frighteningly shoddy working conditions -- all of this happening today on the mainland of the US. This terrible news came just a week after much publicized reports of a fire at a handbag factory in New Delhi, India that claimed the lives of some 43 workers.
These most recent reports follow on the back of others from Europe, highlighting the emergence of labour exploitation in Britain’s garment industry, the evidence of shabby purchasing practices in the Turkish apparel industry affecting workers’ salaries, and forced labour being used in Chinese apparel factories, to mention but a few.
What is abundantly clear is that from Los Angeles to Leicester, from Istanbul to India, from Casablanca to China, labour rights abuses and sub-standard working conditions are, sadly, everyday occurrences in the garment industry of today and not solely something that, as the international media would lead us to believe, occurs here in Bangladesh.
It would be easy for us in the Bangladesh RMG industry to bask in the brief shift of global attention away from our apparel sector. Since the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013 the eyes of the global apparel industry have scrutinized and criticized the RMG sector, highlighting shortcomings in workers’ rights, working conditions, factory safety, and environmental concerns.
Our RMG industry has, undoubtedly, improved dramatically over the last six years -- something that all of us involved in the garment sector can justifiably be proud of. The nation now boasts 101 green factories recognized by the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Wholesale improvements have been made across the sector in respect of workers’ rights, working conditions, factory safety, and environmental concerns.
The news from around the world regarding other apparel producing areas that, one is always led to believe, comply with international manufacturing standards, serves to highlight the massive steps that the Bangladesh apparel industry has taken over recent years, but I do not believe that this a time for complacency.
Firstly, as we move into the next stage of remediation control with the onus on our own RSC to ensure that all of Bangladesh’s garment manufacturers comply to, or exceed, international standards, the industry needs to make a concerted effort to ensure that it continues to be a shining example of transparent, sustainable, responsible business practices.
I am sure that during this transition period the Bangladesh RMG sector will be subject to intense scrutiny from the international audience and, indeed, our customers. We need, collectively, to ensure that we do not drop the ball.
We have made, and are continuing to make, great advances for the benefit of workers and the wider environment, but our work is not finished yet and, as the glare of the apparel industry’s gaze shifts to other areas, we should make every necessary effort to ensure the industry continues to improve.
The examples of poor practices mentioned above prove that the entire global industry is not without its faults and, more importantly, show the importance of what has actually been achieved thus far here in the Bangladesh RMG industry.
Secondly, as the wider global audience wake up to the fact that poor working standards and conditions are not solely something that happens overseas but actually occur on their own doorsteps, the Bangladesh RMG sector should grasp the opportunity to show how these poor practices have been eliminated in the country.
Whilst the attention and criticism shift from Bangladesh, albeit temporarily, the industry, with the support of government and non-government bodies should take the opportunity to promote the plethora of improvements that have been made in the apparel sector, particularly with regard to workers’ rights and well-being and factory safety standards.
I do not for one second enjoy hearing of any poor standards existing in the apparel industry whether here in Bangladesh or in other countries. The entire industry, not solely the Bangladesh RMG sector, needs to eradicate these poor practices and, as these various reports show, we in Bangladesh are a lot further down that road than we are generally given credit for.
Imagine if you will a set of circumstances whereby instead of being vilified, the Bangladesh RMG industry is actually held up as a beacon of sustainable, responsible garment manufacturing for the global apparel sector and is actually used as an example of how apparel business should be conducted.
So, rather than resting on our laurels about the shift of attention to other sourcing hubs, the time is ripe for all of us involved in the Bangladesh RMG sector to champion the advances that have been made and to ensure that we continue in our ongoing endeavours to make the industry the most compliant, sustainable, responsible in the world.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). He can be reached at [email protected]