Today, Bangladesh is considered one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
For several years in the recent past, Bangladesh has been able to boast an annual GDP growth rate of over 6% - a commendable figure for certain. Even when met with the ails of the Covid-19 pandemic starting in March 2020, the country's GDP growth rate remained positive at 3.8%, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and is expected to rise by 7.9% in 2022.
These are all good, positive things.
And the contributions made by the RMG industry to the national economy are massive, inspired and undeniable. A look at the surface level numbers of just one example can well establish this fact.
For instance, according to the World Bank and BGMEA (2019), the readymade garment (RMG) industry is the leading sector of Bangladesh's economy, where the sector's export earnings contribute more than 10% of Bangladesh's GDP and provided 84% of its foreign exchange earnings in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
Undoubtedly, the steady success of the RMG industry continues to make an immeasurable contribution to Bangladesh's GDP.
To highlight just a few of the specifics: 1) the RMG sector creates a substantial employment opportunity for the female workforce, 2) reduces poverty through socio-economic development, and 3) earns foreign exchange in Bangladesh.
Additionally, the RMG sector generates supportive backward and forward linkage business in the supply chain. To highlight the vast array of its benefits just a smudge further, the RMG industry employs many rural unskilled and semi-skilled workers; and more significantly, most workers who are being recruited come to the RMG sector because they cannot find jobs elsewhere in their locality – meaning, while other sectors failed them, this one did not.
This industry's contributions to creating employment are truly exemplary.
But - and this is a big but - surprisingly, for years and decades, the RMG industry does not seem to value or support its workers. While it remains common knowledge to what extent the RMG industry has contributed to the growth of the country, its workers – the ones who put in the gruelling hours on the factory floors, earn close to nothing (especially given the current state of raging inflation) and because of it lead impoverished lives – are left out of the discourse.
It is imperative that we recognise, acknowledge and, under the same breath, reward the people behind the RMG industry success statistics. It is imperative to do so for sustainable industrial development.
In every crucial instance and emergency (e.g. bonus, compensation, an increase in salary, wellbeing, family support, fringe benefits, medical facilities), RMG workers rarely find accessible and reasonable support from their employers and RMG company owners. Either they fight and perish (reference to many workers who were let go due to worker protests) or surrender to the despicable working conditions and wage fearing more uncertainties that would come with unemployment.
We don't have to walk back to 2013 to highlight the severity and harshness of the working conditions and flawed system in place that continue to plague a RMG worker's life. Let's just travel back to 2020 and last year.
When the Covid-19 lockdown halted life as we knew it, ensuing a global lockdown, it brought on a significant, fresh new predicament for the RMG workers. While the lockdown hugely disrupted the regular supply chain of clothing business, online purchases increased. And in effect, 10 million people, including RMG workers, returned to their hometowns across the country from the capital Dhaka. This is because living in Dhaka without a job had become unaffordable for those millions of people.
The consequences of the pandemic were particularly horrifying for the RMG workers because there was no certainty about their wages, thus making it difficult to access food and accommodation. There were health risks as preventive measures in the workplace were less, which also affected mental health – because these workers were tasked with the fear of unemployment and the fear of the viral (and deadly) infection.
A survey conducted by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee among 2,675 respondents from low-income backgrounds found that 14% of the respondents had no food reserves, whereas 29% had it only for 1-3 days. The most vulnerable and low-income households were the worst-affected; and this included RMG workers.
Bangladesh, like other countries, struggled to meet the needs of its population and provide support packages offered in developed nations. In March 2020, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a stimulus package of Tk5,000 crore ($587,925,000) for the export-oriented sector, to tackle the pandemic. But in reality, the RMG factory owners did not even pay its workers full wages.
Furthermore, migrant and women workers with limited skills and education were the most vulnerable due to the sheer lack of a social security system.
Fast forward to 2022 when every establishment, more or less, has resumed in-person office at full throttle as though we live in the post-Covid-19 era.
In the case of the garment industry workers, the question we must ask is whether they have recovered from the tremendous suffering and challenges that they had to face during the initial years of the global pandemic. They had been impacted manifolds more than the average worker - both personally and financially. And during the peak months of the crisis, the factory owners did not offer or arrange enough support for them.
Payment of salaries in due time and increase in hourly wage have become utmost vital. Moreover, it is also true, from observation, that RMG workers desperately need human and labour rights orientation. Many remain unaware of their own rights.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, one can hope, has made RMG factory owners understand the importance of improving the working and living conditions of the RMG workers. However, the news, regarding how RMG workers were treated by its own industry, had been an eye-opening example of the flawed system in which they work in and rely on.
It is high time for meaningful reforms, more so because of the current global energy crisis and inflation. The industry must work out ways to protect RMG worker rights and their safety. It is recommended that the factories and garments owners immediately prioritise providing support to this very vulnerable working group.
Moreover, it is also high time to extend social protection coverage and outreach programmes for the RMG workers so that they receive a semblance of support during crises, such as a pandemic or natural disaster.
And it goes without saying, the factory owners should also design a safe and accessible workplace to avoid industry accidents such as fire outbreaks.
Finally, the workers, in every which possible, should be empowered to use their voices and reforms should be made so that the industry listens to them and makes the due changes. It is not nearly enough to sporadically think of the RMG workers - such as when their Eid bonuses are not processed in due time or annually every April.
It is imperative that we - factory owners, policy makers, concerned authorities and us - think of them consistently to fix the flawed system and provide the country's RMG workers a decent life, or something close to it.
Tania Akter is a Senior Lecturer at BRAC Business School, BRAC University. She can be reached at [email protected].
Dr Mohammad Shahidul Islam is an Assistant Professor at BRAC Business School, BRAC University. He can be reached at [email protected].
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.