Is it only the suppliers’ responsibility to maintain standards?
In international or bilateral issues, Bangladeshi counterparts have generally taken very accommodating, if not submissive, stances. It was hence a surprising -- and welcome -- move when BGMEA on May 21 notified the Edinburgh Woollen Mill (EWM) Group of potentially blacklisting it over the non-payment of dues, and more importantly, of not responding to its communications.
EWM -- which owns leading apparel brands such as Austin Reed, Bonmarche, Peacocks, and Jaeger -- has, in turn, called the claims unproductive and has expressed disappointment at the way BGMEA has handled the situation.
While this may come across as just a one-off dispute between parties to a business deal, it highlights greater underlying issues. Potentially the most impactful event in decades, the Covid-19 pandemic has started to unearth the existing power politics, arm-twisting, and unequal treatment, that mark the underbelly of the $421 billion global apparel export industry.
According to industry insiders, in addition to withheld payments, many buyers have been pressurizing manufacturers for unreasonable discounts and are even considering shifting to other countries, potentially dumping the pending orders with Bangladesh RMG producers. If implemented, such actions will cause a financial catastrophe.
A simple pair of jeans in an outlet in New York today was most likely manufactured in Bangladesh using Chinese machinery, Indonesian materials, and Italian designs. Some studies mention as many as a hundred people likely to have been involved in this journey of the garment.
Unilaterally delayed, reduced, or worse, cancelled payment of dues to one supplier means disrupting the entire chain and putting the lives of all these workers into jeopardy. Where, then, is the ethical sourcing -- of which everyone has been talking of -- the responsibility of these buyers?
Many in the media and consumers and workers’ rights groups have been portraying a mostly one-sided picture of problems in the supply chain of RMG products, with an exclusive focus on supplier-end issues. Problems at the buyer end, meanwhile, have largely been overlooked.
Historically, and especially post the unfortunate Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashion incidents, many voices have been raised over RMG workers’ remuneration and working conditions. A US senate report said events such as the Rana Plaza incident were feared to have made consumers wary of patronizing products “stained with the blood of Bangladeshi workers”.
Ironically, when it comes to ensuring paying these suppliers, wherefrom those salaries, bonuses, and improved work conditions would be ensured, many of these voices have been mum.
In Bangladesh, collective efforts of relevant ministries, RMG manufacturers, and member bodies such as the BGMEA, BKMEA, FBCCI, etc, and some international organizations have significantly improved work conditions at factories, including increased salaries. Besides, seven of the ten green factory units in the world are RMG units in Bangladesh.
While this marked improvement is the state of affairs on the suppliers’ side, who are still maintaining price competitiveness, the issues at the buyers’ end remain not only unsolved but also grossly overlooked.
Very few, if any at all, voices have been raised about how buyers are withholding payments, canceling orders, and/or negotiating unreasonable discounts on the threat of dumping orders.
While ministries, BGMEA, and BKMEA carry out diplomatic and persuasive activities to protect the RMG industry, it is also of utmost importance to ensure that the rights of Bangladesh as a leading player in the global supply chain are established.
If the west and the several international bodies can hold Bangladeshi RMG producers accountable for ensuring their desired level of ethical compliance, they must also be held to the same very principles they claim to stand for.
In this pandemic era where the tug of war has already started on who gets to use the vaccine first, the exercise of might and power threatens to crush issues of rights and ethics. Buyers of RMG from Bangladesh, and from most other RMG producing countries, are considerably more influential than their suppliers and have tactfully had these suppliers at their mercy all these years.
The economic perils of the Covid-19 are real and potent for the world economy. While economic and social cooperation amongst all countries is required to ensure that the world recovers from the shocks as efficiently as possible, it is equally, if not more, pertinent to ensure that no one abuses the pandemic and its aftermath to exploit each other.
It is extremely important then, that the very voices, such as the media, consumer groups, and rights groups -- that brought about a change in the industry through advocating the workers’ rights to humane workload, adequate pay, and safe workplace conditions -- now put to use their activism to ensure that buyers do not turn their backs on the Bangladeshi RMG producers and the millions of workers toiling day and night to clothe the world.
Nabeel Khan is the co-founder of Market Insights. He specializes in market competitiveness and business development, and in the field of sustainable development.