Why the Bangladesh garments industry needs a domestic solution

“bangladesh-factory” by Zoriah (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Please note:  The writer is the CEO of Hathay Bunano ps, a social business in Bangladesh and is also a member of the working group for the 10 point RMG reform plan.

Following the worst industrial accident ever seen in Bangladesh and the loss of more than 1120 lives, with many more maimed and injured, it is not surprising that the rest of the world wants to step in and help Bangladesh solve its problems. There has been a need for garments buyers, international trade unions and governments to be seen to be doing something in the aftermath, and consumers from around the world have been calling for safer factory conditions from Bangladesh.

It is in this context that the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, more commonly called the Geneva Accord or the EU Accord, was launched in April 2013 by many major international companies alongside IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union.

But is an Accord put together largely by foreigners and buyers in the best interest of the garments industry in Bangladesh?

The Accord has some very good points but sadly excludes many of the factories that most need help and reform.   Since the Accord has been put together by the buyers – large companies buying garments from Bangladesh, it therefore relates only to the factories from which these buyers are sourcing.   It is not, by any means, an industry wide solution and most certainly will not prevent another ‘Rana Plaza’ style disaster in the future.

The best case scenario following implementation of the Accord would be that non-compliant factories would be demolished and market forces would ensure that new compliant factories might be built in their wake and that over time the industry would be more compliant and therefore able to attract more foreign investment and so a stronger industry would emerge.

The worst case scenario following the Accord’s implementation is vastly different.    It might suggest that more than five hundred factories might be closed down in the Dhaka metropolitan area, as many as one million people out of work and that this would lead to riots on the streets.   It’s a big risk but given that even talk about closing a single factory in recent weeks has led to riots, the risk of social unrest is very real.

Clearly an industry wide solution is necessary for the garments industry of Bangladesh.    The garments industry is the single largest industry in this country employing as many as 4 million people, contributing to more than 70% of exports and a significant part of GDP.    Clearly a foreign devised partial plan imposed on such an important industry in this country is not the way forward.   Which other country in this world would accept a plan imposed by foreigners on its single most important industry?

We all want to see a stronger and safer garments industry in Bangladesh and the only people that can make this happen are those from this country.    In light of this a group of concerned individuals from various industries including the garments industry came together and have written a plan which includes the whole industry; which has a path to compliance for all currently non-compliant factories; which has ideas and suggestions for the financing of these and which has suggestions for the longer term strengthening of the industry.

At its heart though, it is a plan for Bangladesh by Bangladesh and puts the needs and issues of the whole garments industry in Bangladesh first.   It looks holistically at the industry and has suggestions for the immediate, the medium and the long term.

The 10 point plan does not apply blame to any sector but seeks to work to resolve issues within the industry. Those factories which are severely non-compliant are not ignored in this plan, but rather it suggests, should have appropriate financing made available so that they can relocate and become a compliant factory.    It is important that Bangladesh does not lose capacity or jobs in its garments industry.    It is important that the issues with non-compliant factories are resolved in a manner that is timely for safety issues but at the same time ensuring that Bangladesh can still supply its customers and maintain growth in this very important industry.

Right now the garments industry in Bangladesh needs a plan that is inclusive and collaborative, as the 10 point plan is.    It needs the Government of Bangladesh, the BGMEA, the garments manufacturers, the multi-lateral and bi-lateral donors to all work together behind a single inclusive plan – a plan by Bangladesh for Bangladesh.

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