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The Garments Industry has been considered a lifeline for our economy for a few decades now. However, in recent years, it has not been seeing considerable growth. 

Figure: Number of New RMG Factories Since 2000 / Source: BGMEA

We can see that not only has the number of new RMG factories every year has been increasing, it saw a significant drop during the 2013-14 period. This can be attributed to the decline in export as the graph below illustrates.

Figure: Decline in Bangladeshi RMG Exports / Source: BGMEA

Adding to these, once Bangladesh graduates from the Least Developed Country (LDC) Status, Bangladesh will have to pay 6.7% additional tariff which will result in a loss of USD $2.7 billion every year.[1] 

Thus, it can be argued that Covid-19 has only been accelerating the inevitable demise of the garment industry. The main victims, if that were to happen, are the millions of the workers employed in the garment industry. The purpose of this article is to analyse what the future might hold for the hard working people employed in this sector and have been the backbone of the economy of Bangladesh for over two decades.

RMG Employees of Bangladesh: Who Are They?

Currently, the garment worker population of Bangladesh is 3.5 million of which 60.8% are female and 39.2% are male. However, when it comes to managerial positions, the women are still lagging behind in managerial positions with only 0.5% managers and 9.3% of HR managers being women.[2] Regardless of their number in the managerial positions, the RMG industry has been important in establishing women empowerment in the lower-income households. 

98% of the garment factories are situation in four districts: Dhaka (38 per cent), Gazipur (28.9 per cent), Chittagong (16.1 per cent) and Narayanganj (14.7 per cent).[3] A 2015 study on 90 respondents show the following age-distribution among workers.[4]

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Figure: Garment Worker Division By Employee Age Group / Source: EU Journal

As we can see, 92% of the Garment Employees belong in the ages 19-29. This could indicate that the garment industry usually looks for inexpensive and unskilled labour. The aforementioned survey was done in 2015 which was two decades since the Garment Industry in Bangladesh had started flourishing. This indicates high staff turnover, where the older workers are often replaced by the younger ones. The prioritization of the Garment Industry in inexpensive labour has resulted in the Bangladeshi Garment Industry to be one of the most inefficient ones among its global competitors.[5]

Figure: % of Workers’ Capacity Utilization in the prominent Asian Garment Industries / Source: Emerging Credit Rating Ltd.

Employment in the garments sector has not only contributed to the livelihoods of workers but has had a significant contribution in improving their children’s lives. The 2015 survey shows 100% of the garment workers contribute in the education and education materials of their children while 90% contribute in their clothing.[4] Even if this is not reflected exactly in the entire population, it can definitely be inferred that the garment worker population is contributing to the education of millions of children.

The Plight Of The Garment Worker Population Amidst The Covid-19 Crisis

A research survey by Penn State Center For Global Workers’ Right paints a grim picture of the garment industry. They have divided the crisis into three phases: Increased Raw Material Cost, Delayed Payments and Cancellation of Orders.[6] However, as the following chart shows, the foreign buyers have given little support to the Garment Manufacturers to deal with this crisis. 

Question In The SurveyResponses
Did the buyers adjust prices to help cover the costs of raw materials increase?Yes, adequately-2.96%
Yes, but only a little-5.19%
No-91.85%
Have the buyers delayed their payments to you for completed orders?Yes, by 1-10 days-10.87%
Yes, by 11 or more days-68.84%
No-20.29%
When buyers have cancelled orders, have they agreed to pay for raw materials already purchased?Yes-13%
No-72%
Some Cases-15%
When buyers have canceled orders, have they agreed to pay for production cost?Yes-3%
No-97%
Some Cases-6%
Buyer Order Cancellations Impact On OperationsNo Major Impact For The Moment-19.9%
Partial Cut In Employment- 22.2%
Most Operations Are Shut Down-53.4%
Factory Closure-4.5%
Table: Survey On Impact of Covid-19 on Bangladeshi Garment Industry / Source: Penn State Center For Global Workers’ Right

These have caused the garment worker population to be in disarray. More than one million workers have either been fired or furloughed (sent home temporarily). Of them, 72.44% of the furloughed workers have no income while 80.40% of the workers have been paid no severance.[6] 

As seen in a recent survey, the impact of are already being seen in the lives of the garment workers. The biggest declines in spendings have been in the education and transport sector. While the decline in transportation is understandable in the lockdowns, the decline in educational spending is especially worrying and whether it will rebound post-lockdown remains to be seen. 

Ensuring A Safe and Sustainable Future For The Garment Workers 

The contribution of the Garment Industry has been more in providing employment to millions of Bangladeshis than earning foreign currency. Thus, a decline in this industry will hit them the most. The following suggestions can be considered to help this industry survive.

  • Government Stimuluses which would assist the garment factories have already been declared. These packages should be utilized to ensure that the garment workers can get their fair share. However, the eligibility of these stimuluses should be contingent on the manufacturers not laying off workers.
  • Once it is safe for the garment workers to return to work with proper precautions, the buyers should be given diplomatic pressure to buy their complete order. If necessary, a reduced price could be negotiated to ensure that the costs of production and the wages of the workers can be given.
  • Long term plans must be made to ensure this industry sustains. China is losing its market share and those are mostly being taken by countries with more efficient manufacturing. The Bangladeshi industries should also concentrate on their efficiency instead of relying on low-cost workers. 
  • Regulations should be made to ensure the garment factory owners cannot replace the older and more experienced workers with younger and less costly workers. This shall compel the garment owners to train their workers to be more skillful and valuable for them in the future. However, in such cases, the workers must also give commitments that they will not leave their workplace after it has invested in them without proper reason. 
  • Despite these, there is a possibility that a portion of the garment industry might not survive. The employees in those factories should be given proper training so that they can develop skills and transition into another employment easily.

To conclude, the future of the 3.6 million garment employees might look grim right now. But it is possible that with proper and pragmatic steps, a sustainable future for them can be salvaged.

Kidwa Arif, Trainee Consultant at LightCastle Partners, has prepared the write-up. For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]

References

  1. LDC graduation to affect export growth– Centre For Policy Dialogue(CPD)
  2. Declining female participation in RMG sector– Centre For Policy Dialogue(CPD)
  3. Data Universe’ of Bangladesh’s RMG Enterprises– Centre For Policy Dialogue(CPD)
  4. PRESENT STATUS OF WORKERS IN READYMADE GARMENTS INDUSTRIES IN BANGLADESH– EU Journal
  5. RMG Industry of Bangladesh– Emerging Credit Rating Ltd.
  6. Impact of Covid-19 on Workers and Businesses at the Bottom of Global Garment Supply Chains– Penn State Center For Global Workers’ Right
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