Low labour productivity in the export-oriented garments industry of the country has long been a major as well as much-discussed challenge for the growth of this sector but there is no visible progress to create a skilled labour force.
Even though a few government and non-government organisations work to improve workers' skill, their initiatives are not enough. Efforts made by industry owners are also insufficient.
According to the Asian Productivity Organisation (APO) 2020 data, the average garment labour productivity is lower in Bangladesh than all its competing countries except Cambodia.
The data show that Bangladesh's per-worker annual productivity level is $10,400 while for Vietnam it is $12,700, India $15,800, and China $23,800.
People concerned say that a lack of training, low wage, a lack of nutritious food, unhealthy living conditions, and a lack of proper working environment for women workers are among the main reasons behind low productivity of Bangladeshi workers.
Analysts say Bangladeshi garment products are not getting the desired price in the international market. On top of that, there is a concern that Bangladesh can lose duty-free export facilities in many countries after its recognition as a developing country around 2026.
The changing trend in traditional work style due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, wide-spread use of AI and robotic technology in production automation, could also be a vital challenge for our garment industry.
There is no alternative to product diversification as well as increasing productivity if the sector is to survive in the long run, experts say.
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), told The Business Standard, "The sector will have to face new pressures if it cannot increase labour and capital productivity in the context of Bangladesh's graduation from the LDC status and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In that case a negative impact may be created."
According to people concerned, Bangladesh's low position in labour productivity despite being a top exporter of garment products in the world has become a reality as the steps taken to improve the condition in this regard are insufficient.
Government officials and sector insiders said there have been a lot of plans to address the issue but very little groundwork has been done.
Nazma Akter, labour leader and executive director of the Awaj Foundation, said, "Workers learn from on-the-job duties after joining as a helper. The training that they receive under initiatives taken by the government or the donors are not enough."
Besides, workers cannot afford to eat nutritious food due to low wages, which is another reason for their low productivity, she added.
Kalpana Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), blamed the lack of proper training as well as low wages for lagging behind in productivity.
She added that a lack of a women-friendly environment in the workplace and lack of need based and institutional training are behind low productivity rate in the country.
Fazlee Shamim Ehsan, managing director of Fatullah Fashion and vice-president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), said, "Mental health, nutritional deficiencies, family problems and poor living standards of the workers reduce their productivity."
He, however, admitted that the authorities have not taken necessary steps in the last four decades to increase the productivity of the workers in line with the increase in garment exports.
Govt initiatives mostly on paper
The National Productivity Organisation (NPO) provides two to three days training for mid-level management of the factories. However, it is not enough to increase the productivity rate.
This government organisation calculates productivity rate nationally, but it still does not have sector-based data in this regard.
The Skills for Employment Investment Program (SEIP) project, run by the Ministry of Finance, trains garments and textile workers to increase their skills. Mostly funded by foreign donors, the project has so far trained 1.5 lakh workers. However, there are questions among people concerned on the efficacy and transparency of their programme.
Some NGOs provide training for increasing workers productivity in the country, but it is also insufficient.
The National Skills Development Authority (NSDA) was formed in 2019 to work at the policy level to improve the skills of workers in all sectors of the country.
The organisation has started working in 12 sectors including the garment and textile sectors. Its role is to fix the need-based training curriculum based on the real-world needs which would be implemented by other government and non-government organisations.
However, according to people concerned, the skill development programme for the apparel sector under the curriculum fixed by the NSDA has not been started yet.
Md Quamruzzaman, director of the NSDA, told TBS, "The implementation of our curriculum at the factory level has not started yet. Initiatives have been taken to study the skill gap and the demand in factories."
Labour leaders say the desired success in workers' skill development or productivity cannot be achieved through isolated programmes at the government or private level. They emphasise the implementation of an integrated curriculum.
Labour leader Nazma Akter thinks that the whole work should be initiated by the government.
Shahidullah Azim, vice-president of the BGMEA, said, "In many countries, including Vietnam and Cambodia, the government provides all the training to improve the skills of workers. The government here should also take appropriate initiatives."
Initiatives by industry owners also inadequate
The initiatives taken by industry owners to increase productivity through skill development and other measures are also insufficient.
The university run by the BGMEA provides courses such as fashion design but it has no programme for workers to increase their skills.
The organisation has announced the establishment of an innovation centre for the relatively advanced part of the workforce including mid-level management, but it is yet to go into operation.
Apart from the SEIP project, some other projects are running programmes to improve the skills of the workers. There are also some programmes working to alleviate malnutrition among garment workers. These programmes are mostly running on donors' funding. However, these are also not adequate to fulfill the real needs.
However, garment owners said many unskilled workers are learning through in-house training and on job duties.
Abdullah Hil Rakib, director of the BGMEA, said, "Some factories train unskilled workers through in-house training centres and later recruit them. Besides, the workers are learning day by day the functions of modern and automated machines."
Economist Dr Nazneen Ahmed said, "In the past, the country produced low-cost clothing that did not require a lot of skills. But it will be difficult to survive in the market now without producing high-value products using high-tech machines. That is why we have to come out of the traditional mindset."
Four decades ago, when the first export-oriented garments were rising in the country, more than a hundred workers and mid-level management officials were sent to South Korea for training by an initiative of Desh Garments. Many of the trained persons later became factory owners.
However, there have been very few examples of such foreign training for local workers since then.
Shahidullah Azim of the BGMEA said, "In the beginning, Bangladesh had to take training from abroad as it lacked experience. We do not need it anymore."
"However, when high-tech machines are introduced to the factories, the concerned foreign companies come to Bangladesh and train the workers," he said.
Abdullah Hil Rakib said, "There are 17,000 workers in my factory. I train the workers with technology and machines for my own benefit."
"About 70% of garment exports come from 450 factories that are ahead in terms of providing training for workers. The remaining 30% will also have to work in this regard," he added.