The biennial election of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) for the term 2021-23 is over, after all! The voting was held on 4 April (Sunday) even as due to deterioration in the COVID-19 situation, the BGMEA election board extended the duration of voting by three hours.
The election is usually scheduled every two years. However, it was not held in 2015 since both Sammilita Parishad and Forum panels jointly decided to elect the board. Later, on 22 September 2015, Md Siddiqur Rahman became the BGMEA President and served as the head of the apparel apex trade body for three years and seven months even as there was a consensus between the two panels to reserve the leadership for two terms while the immediate past President Dr Rubana Huq assumed office on 21 April 2019, for a two-year term.
The BGMEA, with around 4,500 members, is being run by a 35-member board of Directors, including seven Vice-Presidents.
The much-awaited election of the apex garment makers’ body had its very own share of controversies, even as the whole process started with the release of the election manifesto, followed by high-voltage electioneering and, reaching a crescendo on 4 April, when votes were cast to elect the new office bearers.
Manifestos and poll promise!
Not to lose any ground to the opposing Sammilita Parishad, Forum, the leading coalition of the country’s garments manufacturers and exporters, pledged to build a sustainable RMG sector in its manifesto for the BGMEA election for the 2021-2023 term with the announcement being made at a press conference held at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon in the capital city Dhaka where Dr Rubana Huq (ex- BGMEA President) and ABM Shamsuddin (Forum Panel Leader), as well as leaders of RMG industry were present.
Forum’s core manifesto had 13 parts. These are – Image; Reducing Operational Cost & Business Facilitation; SME; Sick Industry and Exit Policy; Price and Buyer’s Accountability; Protection and Efficiency; Market Expansion; Technological Efficiency; LDC Graduation; Skill & Innovation; Sustainability and SDG; Labour Welfare; and Cleaner and Efficient BGMEA. If elected, the Forum vowed to review the Director’s performance every three months in the Cleaner & Efficient BGMEA segment while also promising to consider reorganising the BUFT trustee council besides creating a discussion group composed of broad industry.
The remaining 12 parts are divided into 3 sections. The first section describes Forum’s achievement, second addresses activities in progress and the last discusses future plans even as the Forum claimed that BGMEA has many achievements in the last two years and many more in the progress even as it outlined the roadmap of sustainability as well as the plan that could be implemented, in this manifesto.
Meanwhile, the Sammilita Parishad, on its part vowed to prioritise diversification and innovation for steering pandemic recovery even as it ensured to work closely with the Government and the EU to retain duty-free market access in the region till 2031.
The Sammilita Parishad said it will prioritise product and market diversification and innovation by adopting the latest technology to help the apparel sector recover from COVID-19. Sammilita Parishad panel leader Faruque Hassan made the pledges while unveiling the election manifesto of the panel.
“If the BGMEA members vote for us to lead the sector, we will focus on product and market diversification to help the sector recover from the COVID-19 pandemic as export earnings have fallen sharply due to demand shocks,” even as he added that to diversify products, the leaders of the panel will work on adopting the latest technology and research and innovation.
The apparel leader will focus on apparel diplomacy to this end, he said. “I have close relationships with foreign diplomats and Government officials and Ambassadors abroad, who are also close friends of mine. I will use these relationships as a tool to improve business connectivity,” while also going on to add further that for an effective negotiation with the global trade partners and buyers, the exporters’ platform will also form a special task force with the Government to deal with challenges while also promising to appoint lobbyists in the US to gain duty-free market access for Bangladeshi apparel products.
If elected, the Sammilita Parishad said it will appeal to the Government to increase cash incentives for the sector from 4 per cent to 5 per cent against exports in non-traditional markets for diversification even as it maintained the panel will also focus on sustainable and recycled product development (as the demand for these items is on the rise) while assuring its members to work to remove trade barriers by working with Government agencies and to bring amendments to customs and tax-related policies.
The twists and the turns along the way…
As was perhaps expected in a such election where lots is in stake, there were some allegations, counter allegations and not to mention the election board chief stepping down following what was reported to be a disagreement centring the placement of candidates’ names on the ballot paper.
Syed Ferhat Anwar — he is a Director of the Dhaka University’s Institute of Business Administration; the BGMEA formed a board headed by Anwar — tendered his resignation following disagreement on placement of candidates’ names on the ballot paper.
Usually, the names of contestants are placed through a lottery and the winner gets the priority in placing their names on top or as they wish even as on the ballot paper, the winning panel gets to place the names of its candidates from 1 to 35, while the other team members’ names are placed from 36 to 70.
The election commission held a lottery to place the names of candidates and declared a panel winner. But the losing panel was reportedly not present during the draw and later the panel concerned raised questions about the transparency of the lottery and sought clarification about the process. Following a debate on the matter, Anwar put down his papers.
That’s not all; something more was in store still! Just ahead of the much-awaited election, the contesting panels levelled allegations against each other of violating electoral code of conducts.
Former BGMEA President and Chief Election Coordinator of Sammilita Parishad Abdus Salam Murshedy wrote to the BGMEA Election Chief Commissioner alleging that the now ex-BGMEA President Dr Rubana Huq influenced the election process even as he alleged that Rubana, in an attempt to influence the election process, has sent gifts to the voters in the name of the BGMEA President.
Confirming this issue, Sammilita Parishad Media Coordinator Fazlee Shamim said, “After starting the election process, the board should not do anything except regular jobs like UD issues and other day-to-day tasks…Being a candidate at the upcoming election, Dr Rubana Huq has sent gift boxes in the name of the BGMEA President,” even if Rubana on her part claimed, “As BGMEA President, I can congratulate our members on the occasion of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth centenary and the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh’s Independence.
I just sent the crest as BGMEA President, not as a candidate of next election. The intention is clear in this case.”
On the other hand, Khan Monirul Alam Shuvo, a Director candidate from the Forum said, “The Forum had officially complained to the BGMEA election board for repeated violations of the election code by the candidates from Sammilita Parishad,” and went on to add, “The complaints have been filed on 24 and 29 March against Sammilita Parishad panel leader Faruque Hassan, Director candidate Shaidullah Azim and Asif Ashraf, as they are sending gifts to voters ensuring them as candidates for the next election.”
Fazlee Shamim Ehsan however refuted the allegations claiming, “There was no incident of sending gifts to random voters.”
Sammilita Parishad has the last laugh
Notwithstanding the controversy, at the end it was the Sammilita Parishad, the panel led by Faruque Hassan (Managing Director of Giant Group) which won the biennial election for the board of directors of BGMEA for 2021-23.
The Parishad bagged 24 out of 35 directors’ posts, while the remaining 11 director posts were elected from the Forum panel, led by ABM Shamsuddin (Chairman of Hannan Group and a former Vice-President of BGMEA).
“We will work closely with the Government and the European Union to retain duty-free market access in the region up to 2031, after the LDC graduation in 2026. It is possible through apparel diplomacy,” said Faruque Hassan, in his post-win reaction, while adding, “My vision of BGMEA is to ensure that it becomes an organisation that prioritises service delivery for its members, where its members can receive them without any hassle,” while also underlining that
the BGMEA should work as a united force for all apparel manufacturers of Bangladesh, irrespective of their stature.
Challenges galore for new leadership
It goes without saying Faruque Hassan took over the leadership of the trade body at a really trying time and he’s also pretty aware of the same as he himself said that it was a challenging time for the world, for Bangladesh and particularly for the apparel sector, due to the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.
“My main agenda is to ensure financial support and back-up from both the Government and Bangladesh Bank to tackle the ongoing second and third wave, which is already hitting us badly.”
Financial support aside, a lot has to be done to regain the lost ground amidst continuing export debacle — export earnings from the clothing sector came down to US $ 27 billion in the 2019-20 fiscal year from what was US $ 34 billion in FY 2018-19 — while also work towards addressing a wide array of other challenges as well.
Regaining the market share lost due to the pandemic would be a great challenge for the sector, which needs to be addressed, Faruque said. “To this end, we have to focus on branding Bangladesh and improving the image of the sector,” said the new BGMEA President while also touching upon the critical issues related to value addition, skill development, etc.
It may be mentioned here that in the last 30 years, the dominance of cotton products in the fashion industry declined sharply and about 70 per cent of the market is occupied by man-made fibre.
“We have only 25 per cent products made of cotton. So, there is a huge opportunity to grow, but this needs technological upgradation and skills, where we will focus,” said the business leader, while adding that in coping with changing trends and to be prepared for the fourth industrial revolution, BGMEA will focus on training and skills development even as on the other hand, the platform will also work to introduce cash incentives for e-commerce-based entrepreneurs as the online marketplace is becoming more prominent, especially during the pandemic.
Now, how the new BGMEA board addresses the challenges while also living up to its poll promises, remains to be seen.