The BKMEA’s letter calling upon the Government to suspend the 5 per cent annual increment of workers for next two years has workers’ unions/labour bodies up in arms against it with the latter threatening to wage tougher movements to protect the lawful rights of the workers, even as the spectre of 2019 workers’ unrest is yet to die out from public memory amidst apprehensions, if the current issue is not resolved amicably, chances of labour unrest cannot be ruled out completely.
“It has become very difficult to pay workers their wages regularly due to the pandemic,” reportedly underlined BKMEA President AKM Salim Osman in the letter while underlining that many countries have reduced wages and allowances in different sectors, and it was not realistic for the apparel sector to increase wages by 5 per cent as per the provision of the minimum wage, even as the labour leaders have already opposed and condemned the apparel factory owners’ proposal to suspend the legal provision of 5 per cent yearly increment for RMG workers for two years. They also threatened to wage tougher movements to protect the lawful rights of the workers and urged the Government not to grant any anti-labour proposals from the owners.
Bangladesh Trade Union Centre General Secretary Wajed-ul Islam Khan termed the RMG factory owners’ proposal of suspending the provision of the 5 per cent yearly hike in workers’ wage as ‘inhuman and unacceptable’ and added that the garment sector workers would not accept the attempt to deprive them of their lawful rights and the Government should also reject the factory owners’ proposal.
The year 2020 will not go down as a promising or illustrious one in the annals of Bangladesh’s apparel manufacturing history, but rather the opposite. Thanks to the pandemic, if the year was full of apprehensions and anxiety for the garment makers — the revenue from the apparel exports in the year witnessed a 16 per cent dip — which reportedly carried around US $ 1.96 billion back-to-back liabilities subsequent to buyers failing to pay them. It was not a memorable one for the workers either as some reports suggest that around one lakh workers in the sector lost their jobs as the Coronavirus pandemic rendered the global business stagnant.
“It was a year of trepidation and angst. After having orders worth US $ 3.18 billion cancelled, waking up to daily nightmares of price discounts, deferral of shipment and payments and endless discussions became a part of our routine,” underlined the President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Dr. Rubana Huq, adding, “Eventually, after the brands reinstated 90 per cent of their orders, we still had to face the back-to-back liabilities of US $ 1.96 billion, which remained unpaid, because of non-payment by buyers or their bankruptcy.”
The brands of course suffered, but the exporters suffered more, Rubana observed.
Under the mounting strain on businesses, the country’s garment makers reportedly urged the Government to suspend the annual increment of workers for the next two years. They (the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association-BKMEA) reportedly wrote to the State Minister for Labour and Employment in this regard recently even if it is a legal obligation for apparel exporters to hike basic wages of garment workers by 5 per cent annually.
As per the current minimum wage structure for garment workers set in September 2018, a worker is entitled the increment on his/her basic salary of Taka 8,000 a month. However, the BKMEA, a platform of 2,300-odd knitwear factories, has reportedly requested the Government to postpone the implementation of the 5 per cent annual wage hike for next two years.
“Meanwhile, it is not clear to any of us when the situation would be normal, while global buyers are not placing work orders as they are wary about the present situation,” the BKMEA reportedly maintained while adding that besides, the buyers were delaying the payment, which has now been extended from 180 to 200 days.
In the given context, we are requesting the Government to suspend the provision of 5 per cent yearly increment of the wage for apparel workers, the letter held.
Further, the BKMEA letter said the scope of employment has been also been squeezed with the pandemic hitting the global economy hard and measures like temporary closure, workers’ termination and cut in a certain percentage of wages were taken up to cope with the situation. It cited the example of India in this regard, which has reportedly suspended the implementation of its labour law in some labour-intensive provinces.
Meanwhile, even as the BKMEA has called upon the Government to stall the five per cent increment for two years, the BGMEA, is said to have steered clear from joining the BKMEA in this even as its officials also declined to make any formal comment on it.
Considering the sensitivity of the issue and the stance of the workers’ bodies, one cannot really rule out workers’ dissent, if the same is implemented, feared many more since the labour leaders have already opposed and condemned the apparel factory owners’ proposal to suspend the legal provision of 5 per cent yearly increment for RMG workers for two years.
Wajed-ul said that the RMG exporters had received stimulus from the Government amid COVID-19 but many of the workers had not availed the benefit of the package.
“We strongly oppose and condemn the attempt of the factory owners to suspend the increment of RMG workers’ wages for the next two years,” maintained Towhidur Rahman, former Secretary General of IndustriALL Bangladesh Council and also the President of Bangladesh Garment Industry Workers Federation, who added if the Government granted the ‘immoral’ proposal of the factory owners, garment sector labour organisations would announce tougher movements to protect the interests of the workers.
The Government and factory owners will be responsible if any untoward situation takes place in the sector due to the unethical proposals made by the factory owners, Towhidur cautioned, demanding special incentive for the RMG workers while adding that the provision for the 5 per cent increment was included in the wage structure to adjust the yearly inflation and no conscientious person can propose to suspend the provision.
Workers are the worst sufferers of COVID-19 and the proposal made by factory owners to hold the yearly increment for two years is absolutely an anti-labour bid, maintained IndustriALL Bangladesh Council Secretary General Babul Akhter on his part while adding that the county’s RMG workers deserved special incentive as they continued to work risking their lives amid the Coronavirus outbreak.
The factory owners’ attempt to deprive the workers of their legal rights proved that they were not worker-friendly anymore, Babul said.
He said that the factory owners always tried to benefit from any crisis and during COVID-19, they had obtained stimulus in the name of workers’ wages and were now trying to benefit through suspending the provision of the workers’ yearly increment.
“When the factory owners make hefty profits, they do not share it with the workers or give more than 5 per cent as increment. So, why are they now asking to suspend that provision?” asked Nazma Akter, President of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation even as another labour leader, Arifa Akhter, said, “It is inhuman, unjust, and reprehensible. Using the Coronavirus situation as an excuse, garment industry owners are trying to suspend the provision of an annual salary increase for workers. But the owners have taken all kinds of benefits from the Government on the pretext of the [novel] Coronavirus crisis.”
My question is why should the workers fall into such a bad situation; the garment industry owners’ demands are not justifiable in any way, Arifa stated.
However, given how things are shaping up, stakeholders would do good to perhaps sit together to discuss and sort out things, rather than allowing those to snowball into any major issue that could impact the industry adversely.