Gloom looms large over RMG industries

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By Maswood Alam Khan , USA


Another fire at another garment factory in Bangladesh! Before the nation could forget the tragedy, before the bereaved could wipe out the whole episode from their mind, before the injured could find their wounds to heal after the country's deadliest industrial fire at Tazreen Fashions at Ashulia in the outskirts of Dhaka on November 24, that killed at least 112 garment workers, another fire has raged through another garment factory on January 26, in Dhaka, that killed at least seven workers.

 Two tragedies struck only two months apart, leaving many observers too stunned to understand what is happening in the garments industries in Bangladesh and why.

 Why are the garment factories in Bangladesh being so engulfed in flames so frequently? Is it the result of only carelessness on the part of the owners of garment factories? Is it only due to the culture of impunity the garment employers enjoy after such mishaps? Is it only the shoddy workmanship of an engineer or only a loose wiring made by an unlicensed electrician or the irresponsibility on the part of a guard or a gatekeeper, or only a dropped burning cigarette that we should always blame for all these infernos? If we concentrate our investigative mind on these questions alone, we may inadvertently and tragically avoid a larger picture of a conspiracy that might be going on against our burgeoning garment industries that perhaps many foreign competitors and their agents in our country are looking at with envy. Not much is voiced or written about such international conspiracies. We must break a conspiracy of silence that is hiding such schemes.

 Of course, it is our culture to blame foreigners when we sense something is amiss in our internal affairs and we enjoy blaming India or Pakistan when stalwarts and supporters of one political party try to make the opposition political party responsible for a mishap or an event that has nothing to do with foreign interventions. It is our passion to indulge in conspiracy theories, a work of an idle brain, that in many cases deflect blames from the real perpetrators to imaginary culprits. It may be unwise to attribute blames to foreign conspirators for the tragedies befalling our garment industries without thorough, professional and unbiased investigations. But, unbiased and professional investigation is something of a misnomer in Bangladesh. The result of an investigation depends on who is in the power and on what he or she likes and dislikes.

 Sadly, most of us are naïve and believe what an investigation report says blandly or what the media publish or broadcast on the investigated issue. Few of us have courage or analytical strength to call bluntly a spade a spade. There are sponsored analysts who observe an incident with a biased mind only to please the partisan interests; they don't employ mindfulness in all their thinking. Of course, there are some learned independent analysts and commentators who are perfectly observant and well-intentioned but unknowingly judgmental; very often if not always they are sightless to the international conspiracies and always pretty blind to the small and critical details that may point to a larger picture. Most of us, like most of the lackadaisical observers, lack strong memory, solid focus and enhanced creativity to analyse an event and extract signs of conspiracies therefrom. Well, that's because that is more of our natural state.

 It does not, however, require a Sherlock Holmes to detect that a specter has been prowling in Bangladesh to haunt our garment industry. If we optimise our mental resources and then figure out why such fire incidents, one after another, are occurring in the garment factories, what could be the motive behind and who could be the beneficiaries of a decline in garments exports from Bangladesh it should be easy to identify the real culprits. Experts, of course, actually see the world differently than non-experts. But, there are issues, such as what is happening in our garment industries, where any patriotic observer, with his common-sense approach, may deduce a lot from the circumstances, much better than an expert can do.

 Let us consider the timing of the latest fire incident that killed seven people and damaged the Smart Export Garment Ltd at Beribandh near Mohammadpur on January 26, a day when a four-member US Congressional delegation was in Bangladesh on a brief visit to discuss with top government officials and garments leaders on contemporary issues, including the GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) facility. The delegation is visiting Dhaka at a time when Bangladesh is eagerly awaiting the response from the US government to the recommendations recently made by other US Congressmen to withdraw, suspend or limit the duty-free access to Bangladesh's readymade garment products to the US market under GSP facility.

 What impression did the visiting delegates form in their mind and what message will they carry home after reading in their breakfast table the front-page news in all the newspapers about the fire that gutted the garment factory? Should not the countries vying for more export orders from the Western countries relish the prospect of diminishing exports of garments from Bangladesh? Is not the fire incident a probable act of international sabotage to prevent Bangladesh from sustaining and expanding export markets for garments?

 No time is better than now for the international saboteurs to unleash a reign of terror against Bangladeshi garment industries. The heyday of exporting goods from Asia to America or to Europe is dimming ominously fast. Now Mexico or Honduras is a better and safer place for American wholesalers to buy their consignments of garments from.

 Pay is rising rapidly in China and costs in America are falling. Pay and benefits for the average Chinese factory worker rose by 10 per cent a year between 2000 and 2005 and speeded up to 19 per cent a year between 2005 and 2010, according to International Labour Organisation (ILO). Wages in low-cost countries in Asia have also been soaring compared to wages in Latin American countries. American buyers are now forgetting the idea of outsourcing goods from far-flung offshore markets in Asia as cost of outsourcing goods manufactured in an Asian country is almost same as that in America, when shipping and other costs are factored in. Costs may even be higher if goods are outsourced from a country like Bangladesh when unforeseen costs of reparation or compensation that may arise from fire or arson are taken into consideration.

 Asian countries that are traditionally manufacturing garments know it well that whatever advantages they still have over China on account of wages will soon erode as the market is shifting from offshores to homeshores. So, the quicker they can capture orders by any means, the safer it is for them to survive in the short-lived competition. Countries like India, Pakistan, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are scrambling hard for catching the fleeting market share, either elbowing a weak country like Bangladesh out in the crowd of offshore competitors or by proving to world that it is risky indeed to outsource goods from Bangladesh where in a span of only two months 119 workers died in fires that blazed the garment factories.

 Maswood Alam Khan from Maryland, USA

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