BGMEA in fire-fighting mode over workers’ rights issue

by Apparel Resources

23-May-2019  |  7 mins read

Garment Workers
Image Courtesy: flickr.com

The new office bearers of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, better known as BGMEA, led by its first women president Dr. Rubana Huq, took charge in April this year. But ever since it’s been on a fire-fighting mode!

Faced with barrage of charges and acquisitions from the rights bodies and civil society pertaining to workers’ rights and welfare, the BGMEA leadership – which is stressing on the primary aspect of transparency and brand building to take the industry to new heights – is trying to counter the same justifiably to build a clean image of Bangladesh in the global arena.

The first to come out all guns blazing has been the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which in its report Banning Hope: Bangladesh Garment Workers, Seeking a Dollar an Hour Face Mass Firings, Violence, and False Arrests cited five case studies highlighting different facets of alleged workers’ oppression.

But as expected, BGMEA lost no time in clarifying its position on the same saying a few deviations do not define the industry which is glorified by the contribution of 4 million workers.

“If the welfare of labour is our entire target (we would like to believe so), we would like to urge WRC to engage in a collaborative study with BGMEA so that we can jointly address the issues and correct errors when they happen,” underlined the apex garment makers’ body in a statement.

BGMEA has further initiated independent enquiries to look into the allegations levelled by WRC in its report through the five case studies.

The change in BGMEA’s approach towards tactfully handling a crisis situation under the new leadership was evidenced when it maintained that BGMEA welcomes and appreciates WRC to view the sector with the critical lens, while adding any data and research is always helpful to monitor the industry and steer it to the next level of compliance.

But its stand on the contentious issue of wage seemed uncompromising!

…Generalisation in reporting ‘malpractices’ must kindly be avoided in the future, the BGMEA maintained, adding the WRC report, raises the issues regarding wages which mostly remain  ‘controversial’.

In its defence, the traders’ body observed that the minimum wages in Bangladesh were reviewed by an independent Minimum Wage Board which comprised representatives from workers, employers, neutral body (University of Dhaka) and a district judge as an independent chair, which took into cognizance all the factors for determining minimum wages as set out in Section 141 of the Bangladesh Labor Act 2006 and, undertook extensive stakeholder consultation and finally recommended the new pay structure.

The BGMEA said WRC report only brought the allegation of the new minimum wage to be insufficient as per the workers’ expectations and living wages (though there is no globally accepted definition of living wage), but ignored a number of facts which cannot be isolated from the reality.

It was the very same issue of wages that another entity, anti-graft watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), raked up just before the commemoration of the Rana Plaza disaster alleging that in real terms the wage of apparel workers in Bangladesh decreased by 26 per cent even as the factory owners claimed that they had raised the wage by 23 per cent in the new wage structure.

As per TIB researcher Nazmul Huda Mina, the claims of 23 per cent wage increase are not real. Mina explained that in 2013 the minimum wage for grade VII workers was Taka 3,000. As per the law, the wage would have reached Taka 3,829 by the end of 2018 after adding 5 per cent increment yearly. Now, the wage for the grade should be Taka 5,207 if the wage was increased really by 36 per cent as the owners claim.

But the workers’ basic wage is Taka 4,100, which is Taka 1,107 less than the real wage.

This time too, BGMEA came down heavily on the TIB as to the correctness of the report, sampling procedure and above all the timing to unveil its findings.

In a statement, BGMEA said that TIB’s claim of not adjusting 5 per cent annual automatic increment with the basics of the new wage structure was not true while underlining that accumulated impact of 5 per cent automatic annual increments would yield an aggregated 27.63 per cent increment to the basics in all grades over 5 years, whereas the actual increase by the Minimum Wage Board was made at rates ranging from 28.7 per cent to 36.7 per cent.

BGMEA also reportedly sought clarification from TIB about the methodology of its calculation while adding that production efficiency was a continuous process and as per its knowledge, the Minimum Wage Board did not consider the correlation of the increase in minimum wage and efficiency.

It may be mentioned here that as per TIB’s research carried out on 80 factories (situated at Savar, Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj) in the period between May 2018 and April 2019, after the hike, production target has been increased by 30 to 36 per cent in different factories.

“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,” explained Rubana to Apparel Resources then.

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