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Removing bottlenecks in Bangladesh regulatory system!

Published : Thursday, 23 January, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 248

Nazarul Islam

Nazarul Islam

Modern day Policy Planners of Bangladesh, do realize that sustained economic and social development today, has depended much on the expansion and vitality of the garment sector-including the continued investment of global buyers.

History has favoured the fortunes of this land, at least twice. Two centuries ago, Bengalis had directly contributed to the economic prosperity of their land, by producing the finest muslin cloth (a luxury and novelty textile product) and selling their products, to seafaring merchants arriving from Europe. Good times were short lived. In a short span, we became a British colony. Our Masters had robbed us of our resources; to the extent we became poor and poorer.

The second opportunity for Bengalis dawned nearly a century ago. They were positioned as the leading global producers of the 'golden fiber' known as jute. For the next 75 years, Bangladesh produced a major share of global sacking and/or wrapping needs. Unfortunately, fate changed hands again, for this chosen land. Income from the fibre or burlap could enrich only twenty two families which had a stake in this land, and had ruled our destinies.

And finally, after snatching freedom from both the colonial masters, Bengalis were able to chart their own economic course, leading to financial independence and prosperity. In due course, the state of monopoly enjoyed by the people, was lost to global competition. Synthetic fiber had replaced jute, in a competitive world.

This nation had shared a national goal--expressed by their leaders; that by embossing the 'Made in Bangladesh" labels on the garments manufactured in Bangladesh-and designed for the European consumers, would gift us with a sense of national pride. This would also reflect pride of our workers, businesses, as well as the global consumers, whom we had served.

That moment had been right-to assess the current status of our collective efforts, and to improve the garment sector in Bangladesh by way of necessary course corrections.
How could we ensure that? To answer this, we need to divide our recommendations into three broad categories, focused on business practices, governance, and infrastructure and foreign funding.

Global brands and their first-tier manufacturing partners have been required to recalibrate their business relationships, in order to prioritize transparency and longer-term commitments. This must begin with a thorough assessment of the overall setup of garment factories and facilities-big and small, registered and unregistered -that contribute to producing goods, designed for export.

This process of accord and alliance had been needed to join forces in the industry's overall efforts, to work closely with the trade associations, regulatory bodies and the government. Once a comprehensive factory list has been compiled, identifying which production units, or factories or facilities were engaged in production of apparel for each brand. The actors around the supply chain would need to develop an ambitious but practical plan, consistent with business realities, to address the most urgent risks.

Though it may prove to be a long-term and difficult task, global brands, in the short run are not likely to cut relations and run away from Bangladesh. The local manufacturers here, need to build their long term focus, interest and trust with their overseas buyers.
Again, the government further needs to reclaim ownership of the country's regulatory system. It cannot continue to outsource regulatory functions to the trade associations and others. International organizations like the ILO that are working with the government need to focus their resources and attention on building the government's capacity and expertise to monitor factory conditions and further, to develop credible, well-resourced remedial systems.

Bangladesh government should steadfastly complete the work of compensating victims of Rana Plaza and should henceforth, institutionalize this effort to meet the needs of victims of future industrial accidents or the effects of such tragedies. Ultimately the government needs to take the lead in overseeing this system, while the private sector also needs to contribute.

The task of repairing and rebuilding the most hazardous factories in Bangladesh will take years to complete and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The effort to build a functional infrastructure will require still greater resources. It is unfathomable that the government of Bangladesh and the private sector can do this alone. The international community -foreign governments, the World Bank, and other multilateral institutions -- need to step up as well.

As the country marks the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, this is indeed an appropriate time for the international community to convene a major donors conference, on factory safety and critical infrastructure in Bangladesh. Lagging behind on infusion of significant international support, we are destined to see recurring tragedies in Bangladesh which again, would represent a growing threat to the long- term sustainability of the garment industry.

I personally believe that it is possible to see a different future, where the garment industry continues to grow and compete by producing large volumes of clothing in a timely manner at competitive prices and where workers enjoy safety in the workplace. As we mark the anniversary of Rana Plaza, this is what the future of Bangladesh shall need to pursue.
There are significant challenges to achieving the objective of a sustainable garment sector in Bangladesh. As of today, very little attention has been paid to connecting the provide an overall assessment of where things stand and what really needs to be done to ensure safer factories and better working conditions.

Indirect sourcing has remained as the routine practice of subcontracting, often through purchasing agents and in a manner that is not transparent to buyers or regulators. And now, this has become an essential feature of the garment sector in Bangladesh as a means of increasing margins and boosting production capacity while keeping costs on the lower side.

In the absence of an effective regulatory framework, the prevelance of indirect sourcing strategies has resulted in a supply chain, being driven by the pursuit of lowest or only nominal costs. This has increased risks for business and workers by undermining wages and working conditions, as well as investment in technology and training, and improvements in productivity and quality.

The two major remedial plans launched in the last year, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, have failed to address the greatest risks of this system. The two initiatives have established parallel, and in some cases overlapping, systems of factory monitoring and worker training. But the universe of factories encompassed by their programs is less than 2,000 units-while the total base of factories and facilities producing for the export garment sector is likely between 5,000 and 6,000 units. The worst conditions are largely in the factories and facilties that fall outside the scope of these agreements.

Presently, the government of Bangladesh lacks the resources, administrative capacity, and often the will to protect workers in garment factories. The labor law remains weak and lacks valid enforcement. Local industry has enjoyed outsized influence in the country's politics, which impedes the establishment and enforcement of rigorous regulation. The government has launched an ambitious National Action Plan aimed at addressing factory safety gaps, but few of its provisions have been successfully implemented and the government lacks resources to make it real.

The unhappy state of critical infrastructure, especially the weakness of the power (electricity) supply throughout the country, exacerbates risks of factory fires and the likelihood of future tragedies. Again, the international community has contributed significant funds to develop the garment sector in Bangladesh, but these programs are largely limited to training and for workers and management, inspections, and funds to support the International Labour Organization and International Finance Corporation's Better Work program.

Corruption challenges are also very humongous in the country, particularly in the sector of infrastructure development. And, therefore foreign governments and the World Bank are now shying away from investment in the infrastructure development of Bangladesh.
It is time that our policy planners revisited the issues that have adversely affected our progress. Bangladesh needs to identify each one and put this on the right track. This can start with a single step in the right direction.

The writer is a former educator
based in Chicago

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