The garment crisis: Who done it?
LABOUR protests that spread from a sweater factory in Ghazipur on 11 May to Savar EPZ, Ashulia and Dhaka on 22 May, erupted in state violence and vandalism by 23 and 24 May. Police action against workers resulted in three deaths, many injured and even more arrested; the vandalism led to breakages, looting, closures and possible lay offs. Violence is never a satisfactory method of dispute resolution nor indeed does it indicate healthy labour relations.The industry’s immediate response was to allege instigation by political conspiracy or international competition. But to cry wolf evades an honest examination of industrial management in the knitwear and sweater components of the garment industry. Since the episode, many questions have been raised about the identity of the perpetrators of the carnage. The answer does not lie in merely apportioning blame to external actors or seeking hidden clues as in a thriller. The Home Minister has said that he had information, so he and his intelligence agencies should speak out and tell us who did what, and why the state agencies were not able to prevent the arson. It would be more credible, of course, to hold an open, public enquiry with representatives of the Labour Directorate, BGMEA and BKMEA, workers and even organisations who support workers’ rights. The report should be made public as soon as possible to put an end to unnecessary rumours and allegations.
Understandably the factory management is shocked, because it is not used to seeing labour unrest turn so violent. It did not expect such an outburst from a docile, expendable labour force. Another reason given is that the factories where the trouble occurred were relatively well run, “model factories” where workers were fairly well paid. The comparative advantage of some factories is of course no guarantee that workers will not agitate against glowing disparities between management and labour. On the contrary increasing awareness of inequalities is a direct provocation. We should remember how a few years ago, well paid workers in South Korea launched a massive protest against their company bosses.
For the industry it is more important to come to terms with its systemic problems of which there are many. For the moment it has weathered the international competition and in fact received a glut of knitwear and sweater orders which it finds difficult to deal with. Many of the problems such as delays caused by lead time delays, late deliveries of imported raw materials, licencing or production, due to outage failures, port obstruction, etc. are caused by government inefficiency and poor planning. These may appear intractable, but are not beyond solution.
But what is of the industry’s own making is its refusal to reconcile its commercial success with poor labour relations, and its tendency to dismiss labour demands with unkept promises. For several years now workers have repeated vital demands pertaining to their terms of work and their conditions of work. Their major points of discontent have included the lack of an employment letter or contractual agreements, a stagnant minimum wage set in 1994 at Tk 930.00, arbitrary fixing of overtime payments, delayed payments, absence of weekly holidays, and non-enforcement of safety and health protection.
Conditions are even harder in the sweater and knitwear components because seasonal demand makes for insecurity of employment, to long hours of work without leave, which practically leads to compulsory overtime; piece rated work leads to uncertainties as to how much each worker will receive, since the rates are not fixed until the completion of the consignment. When the owners proudly say that piece rate payment brings in higher returns at an average of Tk 7,000.00, the highest range being Tk 18,000.00, this conceals considerable disparity in payments between one worker and another, with a few reaching the ceiling but many more falling way below a living wage. Workers’ earnings have failed to keep pace with the index of prices, and most live in a state of continuous debt, in order to support their families.
Media attention on the recent episode has led to much breast beating interspersed with some rational debate on the state of the industry. Newspaper reports and statements by business leaders suggest that they may now be willing to recognise genuine labour problems: for example at a sitting with the commerce ministry and workers’ representatives last week, BGMEA and BKMEA are reported to have conceded the need to revise pay scales, to issue employment letters, not to enforce overtime. The question of safety conditions was also raised. A few leaders have also admitted the logic of introducing negotiating mechanisms, whether through trade unions or some other arrangement is not clear. The absence of a grievance redress mechanism is precisely what allows the fuse to blow.
If these concessions are to be more than a reflex to shock therapy, serious attention has to be paid right away to setting up a Wage Board to assess living wage in each sector, contractual terms for overtime, hours of work, maternity leave. Safety has become an important consideration particularly after the disasters of Spectrum and KTS, and it is no longer sufficient for BGMEA or BKMEA to make vague promises without introducing strict regulatory mechanisms. They must make their reports on defaulting industries public, for both the workers and the public have a right to know the risks they take. The government regulatory agencies have been even more culpable because time and again they have defaulted on their responsibilities to supervise and regulate violations of the laws. This has happened in spite of directions by the Appellate Division.
Garment manufacturers claim they are now compliant with buyers’ conditions. This may go some way towards improving working conditions, but only to the extent that it satisfies buyers. Last year, at a UNDP sponsored meeting two task forces were set up by the government, the first to ensure proper labour conditions and the second to ensure safety conditions. What has become of the decisions taken by these task forces? Workers have a right to know the time line for their implementation.
Rather than piece meal measures it is important at this stage to move towards a more effective industrial management based on progressive labour relations and labour participation in management. The culture of military management, where security guards have little hesitation at drawing their guns on workers (as happened in Chowdhury Garments, or in Opex Garments a year or two ago), or managers have no compunction at slapping their workers in full public view is now passe. It will not lead to a healthy industry, on the contrary it will provoke spontaneous, unorganised and, therefore, chaotic protests. Many experts suggest that the time is right for the garments to institutionalise a corporate structure with corporate social responsibility that can allow for a grievance redress mechanism. Suggestions have also been made for workers to be given a stake in the industry, in its management, through participation in trade unions.
Perhaps this shock therapy will enable the garment owners to sit across with industrial economists, with lawyers, with workers and other experts to recommend reform of archaic laws or revise policies and practices that belong to a past world. It is time we stopped our detective search for “who done it” to a rational appraisal of how we can establish acceptable labour standards in the industry.