Shamsul Huq Zahid
The just concluded Batexpo, organized by the Bangladesh Readymade Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) in the capital, drew a lesser number of foreign buyers or their representatives and could fetch spot orders of lesser value than those of the previous year.
The value of spot orders received at this year's Batexpo fair was $6.4 million less than that of the previous year. Last year, the value of spot orders was $ 66.4 million as against that of $60 million this year.
The BGMEA leaders speaking at a post-fair press conference largely blamed the street-based political protest programmes for the less than expected response from the foreign buyers. However, the BGMEA leaders were found to be happy over the visit of buyers from non-traditional destinations such as China and Japan.
The three-day Batexpo this year had faced some disruption due to an eight-hour hartal (general strike) enforced by the BNP-led opposition alliance on its second day. Naturally, political troubles discourage foreign buyers as well as investors from venturing into the country concerned.
But the track record as far as the apparel sector's growth for more then two decades tells a different story. The resilient producers and exporters of apparels have proved their ingenuity to cope with the situation emanating from frequent political troubles. They produced goods in their units as per orders from their buyers and shipped consignments on the dot even during hartal days, thus, maintaining the growth momentum of the industry. No doubt, a political trouble-free atmosphere would have helped them more in doing business freely and fetch even greater volume of export orders.
So, the drop in spot orders could have been due to some other reasons. And the Tazreen Fashions fire that claimed the lives of 122 poor workers and maimed many more could be the most important one. The BGMEA leaders, however, did not mention about it.
The worst-ever fire incident in the country's history has created quite an uproar in the major destinations of the Bangladesh apparels. The renowned retail chain Wal-Mart's indirect role involving the fire has come under consumers' as well as media scrutiny in the USA. The western consumers and rights groups are more concerned about workers' rights or conditions in which they work than political unrest in a source country.
And the BGMEA or BKMEA leaders do know it well. They are aware of the fact that the Tazreen fire that has brought to the fore again the issue of workers' safety in the apparel units in Bangladesh rather strongly.
The trade body is, thus now engaged in damage-control measures. It, according to a newspaper report, is in the process of canceling the membership of 850 'non-compliant' units, 600 this month and the rest in February. These units, according to a top BGMEA leader, have failed to conform to labour and safety standards 'despite repeated reminders'.
The BGMEA would ask the units concerned to produce documents relevant to safety issues. If the same are found unsatisfactory their membership would be scrapped.
The Association in 2002 cancelled membership of 550 non-compliant units.
The question is: why should the BGMEA depend alone on documents, mostly procured from the relevant official agencies?
Getting documents from the relevant government agencies suiting to the needs of an apparel unit owner is not that difficult a job. What the owner concerned is required to do is the greasing the palms of officials concerned. So, it is not at all unlikely that many apparel units do not have the necessary safety measures in place despite having all the documents in their possession.
The BGMEA or the BKMEA should form a number of groups and visit the factories concerned physically to see whether the latter are maintaining all the safety requirements.
The apparel exporters should take lessons from the Tazreen fire and try to find solutions to problems of frequent workers' unrest and workplace hazards sincerely. They must be aware of the real causes of these problems and seek the right answers to those. A respectable hike in workers' wage and limited right to trade union could be a couple of effective answers.