Friday, September 27, 2013

The wages issues in the RMG sector

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Saturday, 28 September 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam

The RMG sector is the success story of Bangladesh. The sector earned in exports US$ 19.3 billon for 11 months ending in May this year. It employs close to 4 million workers, mostly women that have played a major role in the country’s women empowerment. The RMG sector has placed Bangladesh on the world map as a leading producer of ready-made garments. Thus the recent disturbances over unbelievably low wages does not augur at all well for Bangladesh because it shows the potentials of destroying the sector. If that happens, the domino effect on the economy would be just too difficult for any government to handle. The result would be a major slide for the country towards becoming a failed state. 

The wages issue is the major reason of regular disturbances and unrest in the RMG sector that past governments, including the present one, and RMG owners have never treated seriously. The government and RMG owners preferred to go into denial about the reason for the unrests. They also preferred to see conspiracies and foreign hands behind these disturbances. Another favourite ploy of the government has been to put the blame on the opposition. The government and garment owners have avoided acknowledging what to the outsider is as clear as daylight that with such poor wages, the sector should have already fallen flat on its face. 

The BNP government while in power saw foreign conspiracies more than the present one when the disturbances occurred leaving no one in doubt where the finger was pointed. This government has avoided blaming foreign hands for the disturbances. It however made up for that by shifting the responsibility for the disturbances entirely upon the opposition and thought that the real problem that is over wages would wither away. Thus all previous governments, this one included, avoided treating the disease and dealt with the symptoms.  They talk about the poor wages but only as a lip service without doing what is needed. In fact the governments and RMG workers never made any attempt to relate the minimum wage in the RMG sector with the price line in the market. 

In a recent talk show the issue was brought to the surface in an ugly manner. A well-known and well-respected labour leader explained to viewers that the minimum pay of the RMG worker receives is not even the absurdly and unbelievably low Taka 3000 a month. He said it is Taka 2000 and the additional Taka 1000 is for house rent and medical allowance! He also said that most RMG factories flout with contempt the labour law that allow employers to employ workers for maximum of 8 hours a day and an additional 2 hours subject to strict conditions. He added that employers are making workers work for much longer hours and a BBC documentary documented a video showing RMG workers at work for 19 hours a day!

A RMG owner called in on the phone to take the labour leader apart. He called him a liar and abused him in a manner that was offensive to say the least. He said that as RMG workers are only 35% productive, RMG owners have to make them work for longer hours! He added that for the longer hours, his company arranges food and gives incentives. The RMG owner in fact left viewers without any doubt that the main problem in the RMG rests squarely on the owners with the governments a willing ally. 

The RMG owner by his rude intervention made the following points abundantly clear. First, the owners do not follow the labour law on limitation of hours of daily work. Second, they decide on the productivity of workers. If they consider their productivity is less than expected, they decided to make them work as long as they want to make up for their lack of productivity! The person conducting the programme failed to stop this person’s rudeness. Instead he allowed him airtime to humiliate the guest. It appeared as if he allowed this RMG owner phone access to the programme as part of a pre-arranged deal.

If it was otherwise, he should have asked or encouraged his guest to ask a few pertinent questions that the garment owner exposed by his intervention. The owner did not contest the fact that the RMG sector is paying Taka 3000 as minimum pay out of which Taka 1000 is for house rent and medical expenses. It is unbelievable that in this age and in present economic conditions in Bangladesh someone would publicly defend Taka 3000 as enough for workers in a sector that is earning close to US$ 20 billion a year! 

One of the participants on the programme, a very soft-spoken intellectual, more out of frustration and disgust over the ugly incident caused by the rude intervention said something that is the hard truth about the novae riche of Bangladesh; that they have failed to become the bourgeoisie represented in Marx’s interpretation of the capitalist society. The novae riche of Bangladesh enjoy all the facilities to become rich in the name of free market economy, but unlike their counterparts in free market economies, do not take responsibilities for the welfare of the workers!

The hard truth about the RMG sector is that it simply cannot carry on with the present wage structure and hope that the workers will accept it anymore. With politics becoming fragile in the days ahead, the RMG owners can expect things to get worse. The Centre for Policy Dialogue has recommended a minimum pay of Taka 8200, which is almost 3 times the present minimum pay. Even a three times recommended increase might not make the workers happy because of the hard economic realities of current times that exposes explicitly the hardship that workers of the RMG sector have borne so far and still helped turn it into the main foundation of Bangladesh’s economic prosperity. Literally, the sector has grown over the sweat of their brow for which the benefits have all gone to the owners many of whom have become fabulously rich. That situation must change for it cannot be tenable any longer. The owners would need to accept the minimum wage recommended by the CPD if they want to save the RMG sector from destruction and the government must put its weight behind it. Incredibly, the garment owners have “agreed” to increase minimum pay by Taka 600 to taka 3,600!

Unfortunately, the action of a Minister not connected either with the RMG sector or with labourers suggests that the Government is not serious. He brought the owners and representatives of the workers into a meeting and declared that he had succeeded in reaching a happy ending to the danger over the wages issue. Only, the “agreement” faded as soon as the groups left the meeting. It later transpired that he had coerced the workers’ leaders to attend the meeting to show the Prime Minister his “magic” powers over labourers. He also arranged a workers’ rally to prove his worth. He thought that if the RMG workers were happy, they would become a big vote bank for the ruling party in the elections. He neither bothered that a promise to almost triple wages could be announced only through serious negotiations nor the fact he had no authority to do any of the things he did. He simply assumed the authority of his colleagues to conjure political magic!

The Minister’s blatant political stunts aimed at luring workers for votes with false promises have boomeranged.  He has now accused the opposition parties for the continuing disturbances and unrest. At the time of filing this article, the right of the workers on wage, unfortunately, seems to be sliding into the black hole of politics with ominous prospect for the country. 
The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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