NOTHING happens in this world without any cause. The disguised fire in the garment sector did just burst into flame. It was so abrupt that nobody could foresee its advent. The garment sector has contributed to the relatively vibrant economy of Bangladesh. Its journey began in the nineteen eighties and it has survived many ups and downs both within the country and abroad. Then why suddenly it suffered a serious setback threatening its future existence has worried the owners, the government and the people at large. The garment sector has become the bread earning sector of 1.8 million workers and source of sustenance of their dependants. The workers are mostly from rural Bangladesh, 80 per cent of whom are female. Any setback in this field will mean a serious dislocation in the national economy.
What might be the probable causes of this unforeseen outburst?
The prices of essential commodities have gone up beyond the purchasing power of commoners let alone the very low-income groups. They find it simply difficult to maintain their families. Their suppressed frustration might have suddenly found an outlet in this destructive form.
Since the inception of this industry, a gap between the owners and workers has existed. Because of the bitter experiences of other industrial sectors the formation of trade union received no attention from the owners' side. Hence, the demand of workers remained unnoticed and suppressed as no side was vocal enough about the problems of the workers. As extreme poverty has compelled the workers to leave their families, they remained satisfied with whatever wages they got though it proved quite inadequate relative to market prices. The recent rises in prices of essentials in the market generated the pressure for this sudden outburst.
The government seems to be in a problem. Virtually, it has lost control over many things. As the end of the tenure of the government is imminent, the workers might have thought it to be a convenient time to press home their demands. They thought that the government will listen to them to come to power again with their votes and side by side they will enjoy the support of the opposition. The opposition is already in a tussle with the government over the caretaker government issue. They have threatened to create chaos in every sector to unseat the government and press home their demands. So the workers thought that they might extend some silent or indirect support to their causes.
The leaders of BGMEA and BKMEA have reportedly drawn public attention to the enviable 28 per cent growth in knitwear exports this fiscal. They claimed that Bangladesh garment has not only survived in the quota-free regime since last year but also made encouraging progress in competition with their rival countries. This situation has also outraged the neighbouring countries and they have attempted to destroy this industry in Bangladesh. As a part of their nefarious design, hundreds and thousands of outsiders were used to destabilise several hundred well-established garment industries in Dhaka and its adjoining areas. This will definitely discourage any form of foreign or local investment.
The State Minister for Home who paid a visit to the affected areas, said "It's a conspiracy by our competitors to destroy the garment sector in our country. Suspicious persons were seen at the spots and we are working on it. We will protect our country as well as our industry at any cost." This suspicion cannot be ruled out in the light of the question of Sahadat Hossain, Vice-president of BGMEA, who said "80 per cent of garment workers are women. Did you see any female workers on the streets during this agitation?" He also added "a vested interest group riding on trucks raided different factories and spread rumours of workers getting killed in places. This infuriated the garment workers and they came out to the street and started vandalising along with the conspirators."
"Action will be taken against the persons involved in the conspiracy and my ministry will provide assistance to the affected owners." Commerce Minister Md. Hafizuddin said while visiting different affected industries.
Subsequently, tens of thousands of workers rampaged through the city and its suburbs to press home their 11-point demand and came to the streets ransacking and setting fire to garments plants, other industrial units, and vehicles besides some business establishments including a few along the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway which claimed the life of one person and left at least 100 people injured. Over 250 factories and 200 vehicles were ransacked. Twenty policemen were also injured. The Bangladesh Garment Exporters' Association (BGMEA) said 300 garment factories including 21 of Dhaka EPZ in Savar were damaged in the two-day chaos and vandalism causing a loss of no less than Tk 4.0 billion to the garment business.
The history of garment industry in our country dates back to more than twenty years. It has passed through many ups and downs over the years and now it has reached a reasonably good stage though not a satisfactory stage. In this age of globalisation it seems most difficult to cope with global competition. But the contribution of poor labour has helped these industries to rise to a flourishing position. The sector has crossed the fear of being knocked down in the world market. It has proved itself capable enough to survive in the face of open competition in the world market. It enjoys no quota facility now.
This industry is said to have been the main earner of our foreign exchange. Seventy-six per cent of our export income comes from this sector. Over 1.8 billion workers most of whom are poverty-stricken are rural teenage girls. Our limited agriculture cannot hold more labour. The garment sector has come up with a solution of the unemployment problem throwing a slight ray of hope in the life of hundreds and thousands of families who would otherwise remain half-fed and half-clad. Their contribution to national economy was supposed to receive serious attention over the years. Unfortunately, their sufferings and pains went unnoticed. No organisation or social group came up so far in favour of garment workers' demands, for reducing their wants and sufferings. No effort has yet been made to establish a reasonable trade union in this vital industrial sector. No group or mediator has been in existence to negotiate between the workers and the owners.
The owners of garment industries constitute mostly higher middle class with some exceptions. Their financial loss will exert serious pressure and negative effect on our national economy. The sector needs urgent attention from the government and opposition of the country. The people and our industries have become hostage to our political parties whose real contribution to national economy reckons very poor. But close cooperation of the political parties is a must to lead forward the industries of the country. When the party in power tries to look into the welfare of the industries, the same party shows extremely irresponsible and even quite hostile behaviours towards industries when in the opposition. Again, the government control means some obstacles to export or production as it makes room for corruption and taking bribes by some so-called government employees. The government control also means broadening the way for illegal money making by some government officials who shoulder the responsibilities of managing control. The management will have to ensure that these shortcomings cannot affect the garment sector.
The sudden emotional and impulsive behaviour of some garment workers has suddenly cast a gloom over the industry. Some foreign investors and buyers may cease to extend their support to this industry, which will directly go against the interest of the country. Now where the workers of the affected industries will go and work? How will they satisfy their hunger and collect their food? How will they survive and support their poor family members living in villages? How will they buy food for the next day when they have destabilised several hundred industries?
What has suddenly impelled hundreds and thousands of garment workers to destabilise, set on fire and ransack the industries from where they earn their breads.? Did it happen under any instigation? Or was there a foreign trick? Or conspiracy? As these questions are coming now, one may ask as to why precautionary measures were not taken against these probable dangers. Not only the government but also the BGMEA and BKMEA leaders should have given thoughts to these possibilities. They should have taken ample precautionary measures much earlier. Why the leaders did not give serious thought and attention to the issues of wage, health, sanitation, job-security and life security of the poor workers who prove to be an integral and unavoidable part of the garment sector? Why many of them had to die due to the lack of proper security measures which caused fire in several garment industries? Why didn't they think that the poor workers who with their sweat earn for them a handsome personal and national income, deserve a fair deal from the owners and from the state?
The writer works for the PACE Programme of BRAC at its
head office in Dhaka