Apparel experts have underscored the need for buyers and factory owners to participate in ensuring the proper health and nutrition of ready-made garment (RMG) industry workers to make the sector sustainable.
At the 2nd Sustainable Apparel Summit, 2020 – organised by SNV, a Netherlands-based non-profit international development organisation – in the capital on Sunday, speakers said productivity in the RMG sector is declining in Bangladesh due to malnutrition among garment workers.
The Business Standard was the media partner of the programme.
Mohammad Hatem, first vice-president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), said, "Buyers should pay a fair price because if there is money, it will be possible to meet the health and other expenses of the workers."
Complaining that buyers are not paying the right price for Bangladeshi products, he added, "Getting a fair price is still a challenge as owners are in debt due to the pandemic."
Virtually taking part in the programme, SNV Bangladesh country director (Bangladesh, Laos and Myanmar) Dr Allert Van den Ham said to develop the apparel sector, it must first be made sustainable.
"In the last few years, Bangladesh has made commendable progress in the development of workers. Now the owners, the buyers, the government, the donors all have to come up with a joint work-frame because workers are the main driving force of production, and they have to be kept healthy," he continued.
Farhtheeba Rahat Khan, team leader of SNV's RMG Inclusive Business Programme, said, "Workers come to the RMG industry because they are not financially well-off. They do not live in a healthy environment. We have to ensure their health is protected and brands and buyers must come forward because it is not possible for quality products to be produced if workers are not healthy."
Speaking as the chief guest on the occasion, Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, KM Abdus Salam, said, "The garment sector is the heartbeat of our economy. Realising this, the government has turned its attention to this sector."
As a special guest, Tuomo Poutiainen, the International Labour Organisation's country director in Dhaka, said about one million workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic and employment opportunities must be created for them.
Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) Bangladesh country director Dr Rudaba Khandaker said, "If one dollar is spent on the nutrition of the workers, the benefit will be $16. Besides their working environment, we have to ensure their living places are healthy, too."
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) vice president Mashiul Azam said the RMG Sustainability Council has been formed – consisting of suppliers, buyers and workers – to inspect factories and ensure workers' safety. Although there has been a lot of investment in this sector in the last seven years, the price of the product has not increased.
"At present, there are 120 green factories in operation and many more in the pipeline. Money is needed for everything. Sustainable does not come for free. Buyers need to keep this in mind," he added.
Professor Nasrin Sultana, Institute of Health Economics at Dhaka University, said the study found workers were absent for two days a month due to illness.
"The annual absenteeism rate is 7.3% and 15% of workers do not seek treatment due to a lack of money. The factory loses Tk560 per month due to absences whereas the worker spends Tk528 for treatment," she said, suggesting the workers be brought under health insurance.
Nazma Akhter, executive director of the Awaj Foundation, said the responsibility to ensure health insurance is on both owners and buyers. She added that owners, especially, have to come forward in this regard.
Mehdi Mahbub, president of the Bangladesh RMG Centre, said according to a survey of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a 1% increase in the number of kilocalories of workers increases productivity by 2.27%. He said food arrangements and snack items can be available in factories for this purpose.
BGMEA director Nazrul Islam said we need to strengthen our monitoring system to ensure the well-being of the workers.
Nazma Shaheen, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Dhaka University, said, "If you want to increase production, ensure the health and nutrition of workers; however, most of us do not know the nutritional value of any food."
Syed Muntasir Ridwan, the country coordinator of the Sun Business Network, said, "We have to ensure healthy food for workers at an affordable price."