Ambassador Marcia S. Bernicat
February 25, 2017
Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed, fellow panel members, diplomatic corps colleagues, members of the press, ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for inviting me here today.
In the past, you have heard me start with praise for all the successes that the RMG sector in Bangladesh has made in recent years, and they are remarkable. But my message today is that responses from the United States will largely depend on what happens here in Bangladesh. And this is about the future, where relying on the past performance alone of this sector is a sure way, actually, to prevent the kind of success the RMG industry is capable of and deserves.
To continue to be successful, Bangladesh’s RMG sector must plan for the future by making significant changes including improvements to infrastructure, financing, and most urgently a fundamental shift in how the industry relates to its workers.
I say this as a person who has continuously worked to help this industry succeed and have been imploring industry leaders since I arrived here two years ago to take several actions to avoid the pitfalls that threaten the future of the RMG sector in Bangladesh.
First, we have seen significant progress in building inspections and safety remediations, thanks in part to the Alliance and the Accords and the largesse of buyers who have invested in their efforts. However, remediation efforts have stalled, especially in factories outside of the purview of the Alliance and the Accords. All RMG industry stakeholders must reinvigorate their efforts to establish a consistent and sustainable inspection and enforcement regime. Stakeholders need to explain that inspections, remediation, and effective regulation of the industry have become a permanent part of the RMG sector’s future. These needs will not end after 2018, not after 2021, not ever.
Until domestic institutions can undertake all necessary oversight roles, and it appears less likely that that day will occur in 2018, stakeholders cannot afford a lapse or delay in inspections and remediation. The consequences of another Rana Plaza or another factory fire disaster could mark the decline of this industry.
Second, worker/management discourse threatens the significant progress the industry has made to date on building and fire safety. RMG owners, many of whom are absent from their factory’s day-to-day operations, must establish and use mechanisms necessary for facilitating communication by management with workers about their grievances, including wages. But I emphasize here, it’s really about being heard. Knowing that the grievances your workers are bringing to you are legitimate ones and they are trusting that the answers coming from you are ones they can bank on.
This is not a burden imposed from abroad. Rather, there are genuine offers to help you find solutions to the labor relationship challenges that can and do occur in the work environment.
I learned, for example, with great interest that the majority of the 33 unionized factories in Ashulia who represent 24,000 workers expressly did not participate in the December strike. This demonstrates how effective industrial relations benefit both workers and managers, while also helping to maintain the rule of law and social order that this government values.
I plan to visit one of these factories in the coming weeks to better understand their recipe for success and to encourage that their model is one that can be replicated elsewhere. And I invite you all to join me.
Third, in December, Bangladesh took a giant disappointing step backwards on labor rights. The international community, including members of the U.S. Congress and many major international brands, reacted to this failure in writing and expressed to you their deep concerns. Ashulia has damaged Bangladesh’s image and reputation as a reliable source for garments. Sadly, this was a poorly timed and self-inflicted wound to the industry. International buyers were already worried about fire and building safety following Tazreen and Rana Plaza, about unresolved political violence following the 2015 hartals, and about terrorism following the July 1 Holey Bakery attack.
Now, they also have to ask themselves how they will sell garments made in a country where large numbers of workers and union leaders are suddenly arrested, fired, or suspended simply because they or their fellow workers asked for a wage increase.
This response to a strike was the equivalent, as you say in Bangla of “agune ghi dhalan,” adding fat to the fire. How the government and garment manufacturers choose to resolve these issues in the aftermath of Ashulia will in large part force your buyers, your partners, and the world at large to conclude how viable the RMG sector in Bangladesh will be in the future.
You can either engage workers and those labor leaders who are true representatives of the workers as your allies in efforts to better understand and address workers’ legitimate grievances, to ensure they have the dignity of being heard, or you can continue to file legal cases and arrest workers and their leaders en masse.
The breaking news of discussions among stakeholders is a positive step, and I am happy to hear those long overdue discussions are taking place. What will matter in the end, however, is whether those discussions become part of a sustained effort that moves all stakeholders in the RMG sector forward together.
Lastly, the industry needs to be forward-looking. International buyers need predictability in the present and sustainability in the future. The buyers have 5 to 10 year planning cycles that they work with. The ones that meet with me tell me they want to feel confident Bangladesh is a reliable partner, one that is thinking not about 2018, but rather a partner that is planning and implementing now the improvements to infrastructure investment and industrial relations that will keep the RMG sector competitive in 2022 and 2027.
Bangladesh cannot rely on what worked in the past to maintain, much less expand, the RMG sector in the future. Your industry must demonstrate its commitment to real change. A concerted effort by factory owners, workers, and the government to transform the RMG industry is one that seeks to meet present international standards.
I look around the room today and see some evidence of that commitment. In essence, some buyers are here, but only one leg of the three-legged stool — factory owners — are present in significant numbers. Buyers I’ve met with have told me what they have told you in writing and in meetings, that they see risks to producing in Bangladesh. How long do you think buyers will wait to minimize their exposure to these risks by shifting their orders to manufacturers who take both labor relations and safety seriously? And you certainly cannot achieve your goals without obeying Bangladeshi law that provides for worker rights. It is those workers who day after day produce the high-quality products on time that your buyers demand.
Bangladesh has committed partners, including the United States, that stand ready to continue to help you devise mechanisms to reduce the risks currently plaguing the RMG sector by improving worker rights and safety. The first and most important step will be for Bangladesh to commit to this course by demonstrating your willingness to look ahead and move forward.
We want and expect and will help you move forward together.