Up close with new BGMEA President

by Apparel Resources

20-May-2019  |  12 mins read

Dr. Rubana Huq

Rubana Huq shares her roadmap with Apparel Resources; details out efforts and steps to tackle all burning issues facing the industry

‘I am here to change, not follow…’, Rubana Huq’s (who has taken over as the new BGMEA President and MD of Mohammadi Group) statement speaking to Apparel Resources exclusively, sums up her character and vision for the industry!

First woman President she could be of the apex apparel manufactures’ body, but she isn’t here to be labelled just as a woman chief but rather be considered an educated woman leader, whose conviction to change comes from her knowledge and strong belief system. It’s not every day after all one would come across a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) donning the hat of BGMEA President.

“My thesis paper was on post-partition English Literature with special emphasis on poetry. I got my PhD degree last December from Jadavpur University (Kolkata)…,” says a beaming Rubana, well aware of the fact that some detractors somewhere are anticipating a damp squib from the new BGMEA President, which she won’t allow to happen. What’s more, she isn’t going to stretch her tenure of two years further to achieve her goals either. That’s the confidence one should have…

“For me it is going to be a huge battle but I am going to do it…,” says a confident Rubana while unveiling her roadmap that encompasses six key areas, namely brand building, price negotiations, markets & policies, productivity, sustainability and innovation, to take the industry to new heights.

To start with, she is planning to overhaul the very structure of BGMEA in terms of its composition and functioning. As part of this endeavour, each of her deputies (Directors) would be tasked to exclusively work on one designated focus area to make sure that the trade body is not a one-man show and, a collective approach is put forth to bring in the changes.

“Time has come to run the show professionally… My main project is to invest in educating my colleagues. I am also going to headhunt for a competent CEO who would look after the day-to-day office affairs while my job would be to set the vision and work towards achieving it,” underlines the new BGMEA chief, which brings her to the point of elaborating on the scheme of things to improve the country’s brand image.

The so-called poor image has long been a concern area for the industry for sure.

Perception change is the need of the hour and, I would not shy away from the idea of even hiring lobbyists. We are planning to hire good PR agencies in London and Sweden and a few lobbyists from Geneva, and this might very well change how Bangladesh is looked upon currently,” says Rubana highlighting that the negative campaigns abroad have often rocked the industry and these must be addressed with caution.

Given the fact that a lot of effort has gone into turning the industry to what it is today by all the stakeholders and still be facing the barbs, calls for ready facts and figures and strong voices at global platforms to dispel such disparagements.

Rubana on her part is going to engage with the media to ensure that the right kind of messages reach the target audience.

“I don’t think we have to do huge projects or spend lot of money in tweaking what we already have. Everybody has great practices in their factories but where are those stories, why aren’t they heard?” asks Rubana, determined to change the narrative now.

Next on her priority list is the issue of fair pricing… Having spent thousands of dollars on remediation, exporters are still fighting for just prices to survive and sustain let alone flourish.

“In price negotiation, we have been unable to take collective initiatives. From the BGMEA, we will form a separate cell, if the apparel owners feel that they need help for price negotiation. No matter what the buyers say we should be firm and strong. There is no country that has the massive capacity as Bangladesh,” underlines the first lady chief of BGMEA, adding, “…We should not engage in uneven competition. Instead of increasing our number of lines, why can’t we come together and turn the whole industry into one entity…?”

Rubana gives a clarion call to the industry while emphasising that when it comes to markets and policies, a multi-pronged approach is what is needed to break new grounds. And foremost in this aspect is economic diplomacy involving the High Commissions, Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Labour and BGMEA.

“The Commerce Ministry could take the lead and others should come together under this umbrella to achieve the goals,” elaborates Rubana.

Considering that some major markets have failed to yield the desired results despite the potentials, the MD of Mohammadi Group-turned BGMEA President is in favour of FTAs rather than pushing for GSP-plus facility from Europe, Bangladesh’s second biggest apparel export bastion.

“If Bangladesh has to qualify for GSP plus there are at least 27 requirements which are more or less governance issues that have to be fulfilled. Under the given circumstances, FTAs are far more feasible considering the opportunities in individual markets,” says Rubana, citing examples of a few such names.

According to her, markets like Saudi Arabia reportedly import over US $ 3,000 million from the world and yet source just US $ 75.61 million worth of apparels from Bangladesh at 5 per cent duty, while Russia imports total of US $ 7,000 million against that of US $ 427 million from Bangladesh. China which has zero import duty is no exception either. Out of total US $ 7,560 million imports, Bangladesh’s share is reportedly mere US $ 391.64 million. Same is the case with Brazil and Mexico which, respectively, imports only US $ 158 million out of total import of US $ 1,794 million (against a duty figure of 35 per cent) and US $ 148 million out of total US $ 3,775 imports (with 20 per cent duty), respectively.

But will FTAs alone help capturing these markets now that workers’ wages have increased substantially (hiked by more than 50 per cent), thereby shearing the country of its competitive edge – the so-called tag of ‘cheapest manufacturing hub’?

“We don’t want Bangladesh to be the cheapest destination but competitive…,” asserts Rubana; underscoring such an approach if inculcated would help increase productivity while addressing the issue of wage hike effectively by making a clear connection between wage and productivity.

“Wage has to be set based on skills… And if we are to do that we would also have to train our workers to think differently. The wage-skill grid must be practised to assess the basic efficiency of the workers, which would translate into a win-win scenario for all,” explains Rubana driving home her point of performance-based incentive to set the ball rolling.

Having spelt out the roadmap to tackle the five burning issues, Rubana now gets down to elucidate her recipe on sustainability (the new focus area of retailers and end users) and innovation, the one that hinges on vital parameters of the latest that technology has to offer.

“While post-Rana Plaza ushered in a whole new era of remediation, doubts around sustainability continue to haunt the sector. Somehow the common perception is that not all of us want to sustain the positive changes and, somehow the verdict is always in favour of us being monitored. Little do we make it known that we have poured in so much investment into our production units that we now can’t afford to see all that go waste,” states Rubana.

It’s a well-known fact that manufacturers have spent big to make most up-to-date factories that are at once safe and secure while also being socially and environmentally sustainable. The results are here for everyone to see; Bangladesh today has the second highest number of green factories with some even scoring the maximum in sustainability index globally.

What it calls for now is to keep the momentum going, which as per Rubana, with the help of well-meaning international brands, unions and development partners, the industry is more than capable of doing. As to the monitoring part of it, local engineers (who have worked under various initiatives and have complete knowledge of the sector as well as the remediation process), is what is required currently. Support from the stakeholders, would just add to the efforts, feels Rubana, convinced that given the level of maturity Bangladesh garment sector has achieved, technological intervention is what is needed to graduate to the next level.

“…it’s time for low-end manufacturing to graduate to the next level of re-skilling so that more jobs can be created to address the intermediate challenges. Pilots could be done to assess the basic needs of the industry and innovation could follow our industry needs,” Rubana explains, adding while interventions like bio-printing are already in use, it’s Bangladesh’s capability to produce its machinery and spares using the latest in technology, which would be the next stage of development and growth.

“It’s an era of innovation and efficiency…,” winds up Rubana on a positive note, giving an insight of her developmental blueprint for the industry not to mention her burning desire to create an example out of the Bangladesh RMG sector for others to follow.

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