Money, life and a mystery: the BGMEA case
April 6th, 2020 at 7:15 pm
Money, life and a mystery: the BGMEA case

Nadeem Qadir;

A debate is raging across the country, fighting to contain coronavirus, who, why and how thousands of workers employed by Bangladesh garment exporters walked into capital putting lives at risk and making government efforts on the bug outrageously difficult.

It appears that the whole nation is on one side, while the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country’s largest foreign exchange earners.

As it got special rescue package from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to back what BGMEA says the overcome the losses due to cancellation of orders and mainly to pay wages to its workers, mostly women.

As far as government is concerned, it asked the garment owners to ensure health facilities to the thousands of workers, but nothing on closure or the opening of some factories in the past few days which saw the sudden influx of the workers to the capital.

Rubana Huq, the president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said they ordered the closure from March 26 in line with the government’s announcement of public holiday due to contain coronavirus

Rubana, after approval from the BGMEA board of directors, sent letters to its members saying that since the prime minister in her national hook-up to mark the Independence Day issued specific directions to all and asked for some awareness steps for safety of good health of all.

‘As the biggest industry of the country, we should set instance following the prime minister’s directions. In these circumstances, I hope that you would consider the closure of your factories,’ the letter read. She told this author that she kept on insisting on closure on 20 and again on 26 March and even yesterday (05 April)… I did not send any revised message to workers or factories in reopening on 4 April … now it has been extended until 11 April.”

The BGMEA president, the first woman to hold the prestigious and powerful post, referred to a DIFE circular which said “whoever wanted to stay open could stay open.”

The BGMEA president, saddened by the attacks on her for the situation arising out of the influx of the workers, and few other members denied having any hand in reopening of some of their factories or even asking the workers to come, rather they were desperate to get funds to ensure that the workers got their wages.

Another powerful BGMEA member backed her claim and told this author that “in fact some of us were trying to shut the factories seeing the conditions in USA and Britain from 18 March. But nothing happened, then we gave further pressure on 22 March and being desperate we sought closure on 25 March …38 factories, some major ones, decided to shut down from the Independence in line with the government’s 10-day corona holiday.”

“My factory has a huge stake to keep it running with a huge sum stuck, but life first and we are praying we can recover after the situation improves,” the member said, hinting that some quarters had analysed the situation wrong and thus the workers rushed to Dhaka.

Both the powerful BGMEA members expressed their concerns with one saying “the most unfortunate part was the state of the workers.”

The garment industry of Bangladesh has been the key export division and a main source of foreign exchange for the last 25 years. At present, the country generates about $5 billion worth of products each year by exporting garment. The industry provides employment to about 3 million workers of whom 90% are women.

Maybe there is a mystery. Or maybe there is no mystery, but whims or wrong decisions on the part of some garment factory owners who put money, before life to put the whole nation at risk.

These factory owners knew that all inter-district transportation were not operating and Dhaka was under a lockdown with all private vehicles operating were stopped by police and the purpose of the journey was questioned, with those giving unsatisfactory answers were fined or turned back.

Who allowed them into Dhaka in such large numbers under a lockdown is another pertinent question that needs to be answered.

Let the debate continue, but the BGMEA can take one big humanitarian step like the SUMMIT group.

Aziz Khan

Muhammad Aziz Khan, founder chairman of Bangladesh’s top SUMMIT group, has announced that “Summit will pay all its employees full salary, wages and benefits however long COVID stays.”

A gesture unprecedented, when many other large conglomerate employees are waiting for arrear wages even though the owners can rearrange funds to pay them off in this time of global disaster. That might be unlikely coming from the BGMEA, but it must at least announce they would do the same for another six months for their workers as after that the virus is expected to be under control.

Of course during any crisis there are issues that comes under criticism and are debated, but all should remember the garment sector needs to be handled carefully after finishing compliance requirements as any harm to the sector will have direct effect on foreign exchange earnings which is required to keep our economy steady as well as fund the country’s much sought-after mega projects.

However, economists keeping an eye on the sector are of the opinion that the BGMEA does not require the fund they got from the prime minister to tide over the coronavirus losses. According to one economist that out of 34 billion dollars, BGMEA stands to lose only 3 billion dollars. Besides, its export earning forecast 39billion dollar, of which they have already earned 22 billion dollars.

Bangladesh economy
Bangladesh garments industry

Thus they feel the special government funds should be less for the BGMEA and be diverted to other important sectors, like the media. With practically no sales of newspapers after the lockdown started, the media houses needed funds not only to keep their operations running but to pay the wages of the journalists as well as others in the sector. The government might give this proposal a deep thought with a package of at least 50 crore taka.

The incident has put the garment workers into great misery and health risks, that could affect the whole country due to the contagious nature of the coronavirus.

It is not the time to get into blame-game, but rather find out who were responsible for the crisis and punish them. The other and most important factor is to national unity to fight against the invisible enemy called COVID-19 with number of infected people in Bangladesh increasing daily.

Thus whether it is money with no importance to life or a mystery that needs to be solved, the need of the hour is to cheer our frontline fighters — the national heroes of the current crisis. Salute to them.

Nadeem Qadir is a senior Bangladeshi journalist and a Dag Hammarskjöld fellow,-