Since 1996, I have managed a company that grew from one core business of exporting ready-made garments. At that time, big factories did not exist; small ones with four to six lines of production capacity were considered significant. That was a world of quotas and export restrictions, a world where today’s connectivity did not exist when delays of 15 days were taken for granted. If there were floods or unrest, pictures and clippings were sent to overseas buyers with hopes of a sympathetic response. Business was a personal matter where contacts mattered and values sustained.
Since 2010, the keywords of the industry have been head-long growth. Within the last decade or so, our exports have risen from $12 to $30.61 billion, more factories have arisen with increasing and flexible production capacities, and we now use machines to generate an alert when we run behind our calendar. As a result of the latest technology, Bangladesh today has the most modern manufacturing facilities in the world. Many factories are ‘green’ and many can command a label of excellence by any global standard. These are the new and stringent value systems of the export business.
This transformation has come through a story is linked to people, our labour force. From the minimum wage of Tk 1,662.50 in 2006, last year’s minimum wage was over six times higher. Manufacturers argue against using the lowest grade as the benchmark, while critics use it to form a global narrative against our trade. The higher grades are rarely discussed and good stories do not make their way through the adverse propaganda. At the same time, Bangladesh made significant progress in efforts to improve emergency response and post-disaster rehabilitation and recovery.
Buyers continued to source from Bangladesh and quantities have grown in a considerable manner. Yet the minimum wage debate intermittently hits the sector, provoked by human rights and green activists. T-shirts designed for UK’s last Comic Relief’s gender justice campaign were allegedly made in Bangladesh where women are paid the equivalent of Sterling 0.35 an hour, leaving people “deeply shocked and appalled”. The reality is that much of these anti-Bangladeshi campaigns are a cloak for western protectionism.
A new minimum wage was published at the end of November, and a violent picture began to suspiciously surface before the election, with most workers being compelled to join processions and with wilful damage to property within the factories.
The Rana Plaza collapse tragedy of 2013 made us invest sincerely in addressing the image deficit of the sector. We accepted wage hikes, reforms, and other prescriptions that came our way. And yet we are currently witnessing both intense pressures from activists outside and instigated violence within that are totally unacceptable. While manufacturers demand better prices, and retailers counter by referring to global competition and decreasing margins, let us uphold two basic values; there is no alternative to improving the owner-worker platform, and equally no alternative to securing a fair price from buyers.
While asking for this fair price, we need to emphasise that we have capacities that no other country can create overnight; and Bangladesh stands a fair chance of pushing above its 6.5 percent and chasing the 34.9 percent Chinese figure of global market share. For this objective, we need to add value to our products, improve our efficiency levels, and address the competition arising from Turkey, Sri Lanka and India whose currencies have recently depreciated much faster than ours.
Despite these challenges, we are confident that garment exports from Bangladesh will continue to grow, but the vicious cycle of violence and the negative stories can only be put to rest if we continue to be mindful while dealing with labour. Labour, after all, has the value and logic of love, which should never go unaddressed.