Whither garment village?

Syed Jamaluddin: The country’s garment factories are facing one risk or another. Fire risk, electric security, exit door inadequacy and weak building structure of are some of the problems. The Accord comprising 89 corporate members of European buyers and the Alliance for Bangladesh workers safety of the US have identified these problems after inspecting more than 1,500 factories in a few months. To solve these problems and to ensure safe environment in factories would require Tk 200 billion, according to Accord and Alliance

So far Accord has completed inspection of 1,106 factories and Alliance has inspected 587 factories. These two organisations have come across more than 80,000 problems. Although some of these problems are minor, most of these problems are complex. The security chief of Alliance has said that problems have been found in all the factories visited. The adviser for Alliance has commented that inspection was an easy job but the next step is very difficult. Machineries of all factories have to be rearranged for the purpose of reform. Equipment for fire fighting should be in place. Automatic alarm system has to be installed. The columns of the buildings have to be strengthened.

It is estimated that in order to improve the security situation in each factory, it would require from $ 2,50,000 to $10,000. Tk 200 billion would be needed for repair of 4,500 factories. After the death of 1,129 workers in the Rana Plaza tragedy in April last year, labour unions and consumer groups put pressure on garment buyers. As a result, the buyers carried out these inspections. The Alliance inspectors recommended to suspend operation in 17 factories temporarily and 24 factories are to be closed down for the time being. It is learnt that on the basis of inspection reports, four factories have been shutdown permanently. Side by side with Alliance and Accord, the government has decided to inspect 1,500 factories.

Analysts have said that the absence of any controlling authority has led to the present state of affairs in the garment sector. There is no clear cut mechanism to look after the garment sector which is contributing around 80 per cent to the country’s export earnings. Ministries of commerce, textile, industries and labour came into the picture from time to time. Environment, local government, works, home, finance, planning and jute ministries are also involved. But no authority is willing to accept the responsibility of any accident or irregularities. This sector is operating in an independent manner. BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) is, however, looking after a lot of coordination work. The proposal for setting up an Apparel Board is under discussion for 25 years.

Garment sector is the most important sector in the country considering all aspects of industrial development. This sector is making progress although many other sectors are lagging behind. Private sector is to be given all the credit for advancing this sector. There was a demand for creating a separate ministry for garment industry. There seems to be no justification for a new ministry. Jute and Textile ministry may be given the responsibility to look after ready made garments. If necessary, the capacity of the ministry may be expanded. Textiles will be a separate division.

The contribution of this sector to Gross Domestic Product is 10 per cent. It goes upto 15 per cent if the contributions of complementary industries are included. Two thirds of labour is engaged in this sector. About 85 per cent garment workers are women. This sector is the backbone of the economy. Lack of compliance is retarding the progress of this sector.

Accord and Alliance have done a pioneering job by inspecting garment factories. It is not known if similar work has been done in any other country. The next step in this sector should be the implementation of the recommendations of the inspectors. This can not be done at a time. It has to be done in phases with the participation of all stakeholders.

It is suggested that the reconstituted ministry of Jute and Textile may be given overall responsibility. BGMEA may be working under the guidance of textile ministry, and it may be designated as the implementing agency. Textile ministry and BGMEA may jointly work out a programme to implement the recommendations of the inspectors in phases. The government, BGMEA, entrepreneurs and the buyers represented by Alliance and Accord should collectively implement the recommendations.

If the recommendations are implemented properly, this will take the garment sector to a new height. Donor support is needed for duty and quota free export of ready made garments. Donors are committed to give special treatment to Bangladesh as a least developed country.

Shifting of garment factories outside Dhaka is under discussion for a long time. Setting up of a garment village is a good concept. There is a proposal to set up a garment village in Munshiganj. In fact, more than one garment village needs to be set up. Big and small garment factories have sprung up in different areas of Dhaka and Chittagong. These factories need to be relocated in garment villages. Compliant factories are not available in big cities because of many limitations. New areas with communication, health and transportation network will have to be built for relocating garment factories

The writer is an economist and columnist.



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