THE export-oriented readymade garments (RMG) sector is now a pillar of strength for the Bangladesh economy. It is the single biggest earner of foreign exchange from exports and employs a vast number of the country's workforce. Any upset in the functioning of this pivotal sector or in its growth will come as a severe shock for the country's economy as a whole. On their part, Bangladeshi producers and exporters of RMG proved their resilience several times as they confronted major threats to their upward move. First, they were able to successfully settle the child labour issue in the garments industry in the early nineties. The issue was a non tariff barrier of sorts that was sought to be imposed not unjustifiably by RMG importers on Bangladesh. But it could be happily sorted out by the cooperation of all - the RMG producers, the buyers and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The next major concern that arose about Bangladeshi RMG industries was in respect of their survival in the face of the withdrawal of the quota system from 2005. This was a very serious concern but this time also the RMG sector of the country could successfully triumph over the feared fallout from the withdrawal of the quota system through timely internal restructuring and cost cutting at different levels.
But now, another major problem is looming in the horizon of the RMG sector and this relates to increasing pressure from the importers that Bangladeshi RMG industries need to comply with certain labour, social and other standards to go on benefiting from their uninterrupted export activities. The importers had dropped a hint that they would be even prepared to refuse RMG products from Bangladesh on grounds of non-compliance with such standards. A meeting was held in Dhaka last year between the importers, RMG producers and the government of Bangladesh, to discuss these issues. Some progress followed in the matter, thereafter. But it seems that the buyers are stepping on the pedal and are demanding the earliest adherence of the producers and exporters to these compliance issues to be able to avoid any sanctions on their part. Thus, they are demanding that Bangladeshi RMG makers and exporters must comply with a uniform set of labour standard to satisfy them.
There is no need to explain why quick actions on the part of everybody concerned are necessary to secure the RMG industry from this growing challenge posed by the compliance issues. Solving the same would require the RMG industries to pay minimum decent wages to their workers, limiting their hours of work to a reasonable period, safer working conditions and other benefits. The RMG producers are probably in a position to meet these demands to some extent without losing their competitiveness. They should make known their intention to the buyers to do this within the time-frame that the buyers are seeking. At the same time, they can let the buyers also know how far they can go without losing their ability for maintaining financially viable operations.
From mutual consultations an accord can be reached like that in the case of the child labour issue in the past. After that, the RMG producers should make their best effort to implement their part of an agreement well within the decided time-frame. A proper resolution of the compliance issues is extremely important for the survival and expansion of the RMG sector. Keeping this supreme goal in view, the producers must not hesitate to play the part that they are truly capable of playing in their own longer-term interests and that of the national economy.