APPAREL SECTOR REPORT : Was it necessary for minister to suggest suing TIB

opd01AFTER the parliament report which led to calls for its ban by MPs, Transparency International, Bangladesh has come out with another one on the RMG sector. The first was on the nature and functioning of the parliament and the second one is on corruption and anomalies of the RMG sector. Both are vital to the ruling class, no matter which party they belong to. Such reports are always going to cause ire as both the parliament and the RMG sector are pillars of the ruling class. But is the report so explosive or does it merit such ire from the BGMEA and the commerce minister?
The report actually is quite positive about many of the achievements made by the sector particularly relating to factory safety. Another report in 2013, soon after the disasters at Rana Plaza, Tazreen and other garments factories was more damaging.
Compiled by the Transparency International chapters in Bangladesh and Germany, It observed, ‘Responsibility for the tragedy lies on weak law enforcement, corruption and a desperate game of making quick money. Everyone responsible must be brought to justice to prevent such tragedies in future and ensure higher safety standards. However, nothing in the wake of the tragedy can justify any action that could restrict access of Bangladeshi products to the EU, North American and other global markets. This will mean chopping off the head for headache, and lead to punishing the garment workers for no fault of them, over 85 per cent of whom are women.’ The latest TIB report does agree that work safety has greatly improved. Not only is it the largest employer in the country but the number of registered factories would be close to 5,500 making it a mega industrial sector, dwarfing all others with its four million plus work force.
However, the RMG sector is not just about the owners but workers too which is not noted in most policy briefs. Although legal provisions to form trade unions exist, none has come to that and workers rights are not robustly represented. An ILO report said in 2003 that the attitude of the readymade garment factory owners towards the workers and the
workers’ lack of awareness hinder the development of trade unions, which are against international labor standards.
A recent survey carried out by the Asian Centre for Development states that most workers in this sector are unskilled and the profit-making rides on such shoulder, mostly women. A report carried recently by Banik Barta (January 14) says based on the report that only 3 per cent of the workers get paid more than Tk 10,000 a month; 20 per cent get slightly more than Tk 5,000. It’s an unfair situation that prevails and the crisis is not just about corruption but very low investment in skills development of workers.
The McKinsey and Company survey carried out in 2012 showed corruption as one of the main risk factors in the development of the sector. A World Bank research in 2002 showed that eliminating corruption could mean a 2 per cent increase in the country’s GDP. A combination of government and private corruption creates a tendency of profiteering and creates barriers to ensuring worker rights. And together they build the bulwark of the new rich who basically own or control much of the resources of Bangladesh.
But the TIB report is more about sectoral anomalies as it lists structural rather than cases of individual corruption. Anyone familiar with the Bangladesh business sector would know that corruption is not a crime any more but part of normal business. TIB has pointed out the flaws of the system but at the same time conceded the many improvements, including in safety and compliance. The argument that the BGMEA and the BKMEA have made that the Accord-Alliance has certified that 98 per cent compliance in the sector is positive is a fact. This matter has also been noted in the report as well and it goes on to say that many of the  corruption issues are a result of buyer pressures and local factory owners cannot be faulted for that.
But the position taken by commerce minister Tofail Ahmed, who suggested that the TIB should be sued is not clear.  He has also stated that the TIB is part of a conspiracy to destroy the RMG sector. This statement is not very politically savvy as he seems to be toeing the BGMEA line entirely. Or is it because they are still smarting from the parliament report which aroused high anger from the MPs?
The RMG sector is here to stay and with much more scrutiny than ever before things will get better. But the TIB report has one major weakness; it should have interacted with the RMG owners before the report was completed and that is why its credibility and fairness of objective becomes questionable about being fair. This practice of consultation must be part of its future advocacy process. But the report is neither malicious nor inaccurate. Any other sector suffers from the same weaknesses that have been mentioned in connection with the garments sector. Given that so many players — national and international — are involved, this is natural. The TIB has been very critical of international buyers and that should be noted. Maybe instead of knee-jerk over-reaction, they could have perused and discussed the report publicly rather than claim it as a product of a ‘conspiracy’.
What the minister could have done, instead of deciding to bat exclusively for the RMG owners’ team, was to wear the jersey of the politicians who represent the interest of the rich and the poor both. But he chose not to and that is the more unfortunate part of the episode because politicians are expected to stand up for the poor too which is their political duty and not take sides. Both the TIB and the BGMEA have said their words, it’s now up to the government to stand in the middle and decide fairly what to do next. To suggest that the TIB should be sued hardly serves a government of the people and the spirit of equity which the party promises to adhere to all the time.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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