Two things led me to write this piece. The first concerns the time when a younger neighbour asked me to join him in setting up a garment making factory way back in 1985 or 1986. I had just ended my university life and was doing my fellowship in New York, which meant I had no cash to invest. So I asked my late mother, who was widowed in 1971, to loan me the money, but she was scared that if the business did not work out her savings would be lost. So, I could not join this neighbour, who is now among the rich of Bangladesh with thriving factories that make garments for export.
When we meet sometimes now, I feel happy for him and his farsightedness. I tell him I am proud of his achievements. He tells me had I joined him at that time, my life could be far more secure financially. Sure, every penny helps. For a journalist who started with a monthly salary of Tk 2,300 job, it was not easy. Despite the fact I continued to enjoy my mother’s 100 percent hospitality, an arrangement I called “Maer Hotel” (Mother’s Hotel.) On the other hand, the satisfaction of being able to do something which I wanted to do very much brings different happiness. Money was not that a big factor in my case with a generous and loving mother around.
At that point in time, some major tailoring businesses moved into the garment sector slowly. As the orders started to come, some of the wiser people took up the work seriously. Eventually, they laid the base of a business which today earns and employs the highest number of workers in Bangladesh.
Now, the second thing that prompts me to write this. Several days back my old friend Dr Rubana Huq, Managing Director of the Mohammadi Group, wrote a piece in a Dhaka daily headlined “Labour of Life,” saying “...yes, our story is linked to people; our logic is linked to labour” and “Ever since 2010, our story has had only one tag word: Growth.”
I have visited her factories during peace and turmoil. It was always the same and it should be the same as she has given priority to the welfare and happiness of her workers. Large spaces were made available in her factories to allow daylight and proper airflow so that they did not lack oxygen, there are even day care centres for working mothers and wages always paid in time. Workers told me they were very happy and they “loved” their “Madam.”
Thus the question is why even one of her factories came under threat. Who was or are behind it? Who are the instigators? What benefit do they get by inciting the workers and ruining not only the lives of the owners and workers but also our economy which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken to great heights as universally acknowledged? Labour-related violence has pushed many to move out from Bangladesh to other Asian countries, namely Vietnam.
Some media reports have pointed fingers at a politician who was left out from the new cabinet sworn in after the Dec 30 general election. Our intelligence agencies are well-equipped and trained now. They have been lauded for their work for the nation. They should stop these elements and stop any unrest in the RMG sector once for all. Enough is enough. It cost the lives of a very needy family in Ashulia a few days ago. The young man was not even demonstrating but his luck ran out that fateful day as he was hit by a bullet fired by an unidentified person. That gunman too must be found and punished.
His family might get some financial assistance due to his death from many sources, but the pain of the family and the scar on our “Labour of Love” RMG factories will remain.
“In three decades, we have continued to grow at an exponential rate. More specifically, within the last decade or so, our exports have shot up from $12 billion to $30.61 billion. More factories have sprung up with ever increasing, elastic, flexible production capacities. Production planning has shifted from the tables of the owners to highly sophisticated screens that tell us about what's happening on the factory floor by the hour. We no longer use an eraser on our ruled notebooks with binders to change our production schedule or our delivery dates; we now use the machine to tell us when we can possibly finish production and generate an alert when we run behind our time and action calendar. Our digital lives are marked with red dots, red lines that warn us of our impending failures and when they turn green, we breathe in ease and look forward to a restful night. The narrative from post-90s has altered. We now speak a language of productivity, calculating minutes, tracking non-performing times. We watch our factory floors on our phones and monitor our output in the most scientific manner. As a result, Bangladesh today has the most modern, compliant manufacturing facilities in the world. Many of our factories are green and many can easily match the label of excellence by any global standard, from any global brand or retailer,” wrote Rubana Huq.
But that day when again unrest started in the RMG factories in Dhaka and Ashulia, I found her in distress. “Do not come (for our meeting) ... I am rushing to my factory as there is some problem,” she told me in a very distressed voice. However, at the end of the day, she replied to my query that all was well. Thank God.
RMG factory owners who follow every law made to cater to international standards, especially focussing on improving the lives of workers, question why their labour of love is causing them so much pain. Many believe elements that benefit from the unrest and its negative consequences are the instigators. These are the real enemies of Bangladesh. They do not like to see our economy getting stronger; they do not want our innocent and almost illiterate workers to live comfortably. They want our factories to move out from Bangladesh. Following November 2018, violence Rubana Huq in her piece wrote “Buyers have continued to source from Bangladesh and our quantities have grown in a considerable manner. Yet, while the sector thought that all was good and shining, the minimum wage debate has once again hit the sector. A new gazette with the new minimum wage was published at the end of November. While there was no immediate reaction. While the day of the national election approached, suddenly a complaint of one or two grades not having been adjusted properly began to hit a few areas and in no time, a more violent picture began to suspiciously surface, while the nation prepared for polls. In the last couple of days, most of our workers have been compelled to leave our factory floors and join processions gaining momentum right outside our factory gates. In spite of the gates being secured, there have been cases of extreme violence and some destruction of assets leading us to wonder about how and why the manufacturers have fallen prey to a negative narrative surrounding a sector that we have spent all our lives building.” A very valid question indeed and a reason to worry.
These elements have used the Rana Plaza tragedy to damage our garment sector, but soon the owners managed to stamp out the misleading information campaign about a one-off tragedy that would never happen again.
How far the workers’ wages will be hiked is an important question. After the latest pay hike, my manager for 17 years told me it would be good to employ his other family members and bring in at least Tk 100,000. The most important question that needs to be answered without siding with any party involved is who will provide the extra money for wages? The RMG factory owners, including my former neighbour, say their profit has come down to a level where it was no longer viable to remain in this trade. They allege everyone pressures them whenever workers go violent, neither the government nor the buyers are taking steps to keep the business profitable even at a minimum level. Rubana Huq has pointed out several important issues that threaten our RMG sector. While no other country can build overnight the capacity Bangladesh is now equipped with, there are competitors who would take advantage of our situation.
Nadeem Qadir is a UN Dag Hammarskjöld fellow.