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“Facade of workers’ safety beginning to show cracks during the pandemic” – How true is the claim?

October 20, 20200

“Facade of workers’ safety beginning to show cracks during the pandemic” – How true is the claim?

Fahim S. Chowdhury

An article titled “Facade of workers’ safety beginning to show cracks during the pandemicpublished in The Daily Star on October 14, 2020, raised questions on Bangladesh garment workers “safety” in terms of global supply chain, spread of coronavirus, increased incidents of sexual harassment and gender-based violence, government and factories’ decision of workers to return to work, workers’ calorific needs, savings to pay for food, support of social assistance, etc.

Mentioning a new joint report findings on ready-made garment (RMG) workers of Bangladesh the author placed her claims. The joint report that the author mentioned was based on a rapid survey conducted by the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED) of BRAC University and the findings were analyzed jointly with BRAC James P. Grant School of Public Health (JPGSH) of BRAC University and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. The findings of the rapid survey which was shared at a webinar has already been circulated through different media channels.

The article attempts to portray that the workers safety mechanism has failed in Bangladesh during the pandemic. Looking into the findings of the joint report, however, we see that the Bangladesh RMG sector bounced back strongly in a matter of only three months, while the tremendous hardship that the sector faced at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak was due to the acts of the global brands for which it is not responsible. In this circumstance to have such a short turnaround time speaks volume about the resilience of the industry. The factory owners rather have tried their level best to pay their workers even when the factories were closed and the production was ZERO due to the cancellations of the orders from top most renowned global brands.

The author mentioned in her article – “A new report released by The Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley in collaboration with the James P Grant School of Public Health (JPGSPH) and the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED) at BRAC University finds that, based on export earning data, the garment industry lost USD 4.6 billion between March and May this year.” – the statement is placed such a way that the readers will think that this is a finding of the rapid survey; in reality this was part of the literature review! Furthermore, the survey only asked about a perception based question – “How likely are you to get infected by Coronavirus at the factory?” The survey found that 87 percent of the workers said that the factory introduced new precautions against Coronavirus. The author misinterpreted these data and drew a conclusion questioning about the “safety” of the workers as a whole – which was not asked or linked with the actual survey conducted.

The author in her concluding remarks stated: “By all definitions, garment workers are not safer now, especially under this current crisis, compared to seven years ago. This pandemic offers us an opportunity to think about the gross inequalities that are present at all layers of the global supply chain and re-examine the factors that prevent constructing work environments that are truly safe, in the fullest definition of the word”. Assuming that her intention and dedication for the “welfare” of the Bangladesh garment workers are genuine; we should also understand then why she in a single way is blaming the sector by misinterpreting a survey report which was done with a biased small sample size of 1,038 garment workers through phone calls?

So we need to understand in what basis the author has put her claims and came to such conclusions – especially with a very small sample size? We also need to know whether she interviewed any factory owners to know what measures they have taken at the factories and also if she had found any direct examples of “sexual harassment” cases. Otherwise, such allegations and defamations would be very unhealthy and harmful to an industry which has been the major strength for the country’s economy.

It is not acceptable that the claims made by the author from the study findings are not projecting the actual scenario rather these are being misinterpreted! One cannot place his or her claims, present generalized comments, and wrongly link survey findings to other articles in an irrelevant manner and put blame on the whole sector and their actors – more particularly the factory owners based on misinterpreted data.

If anyone is dedicated towards a sustainable and breakthrough changes, one should understand the system and its forces so that one can consciously work for and work with the system instead of unconsciously working against it. In searching for root causes, people typically assume that they are doing the best they can and that someone else is to blame instead of recognizing their efforts. To change a system, one needs to understand the whole system and appreciate first which he or she wants to change through a systemic instead of conventional and biased insights.

At present time, more specifically at this crucial pandemic time, when growing income inequality and climate change increase the vulnerability of many and reduce the sustainability for all, where we need to be sensible to all to initiate dialogs for the systematic change, such misinterpreted and biased articles are not helpful in creating a platform for discourse. We wished that the author of the article should have anticipated the impact of the long-term negative consequences of her claims over Bangladesh garment industry.

It is obvious that no matter how dysfunctional and faulty a system appears to be, we must see if it is producing benefits for the people who participate in it. Just like the RMG sector of Bangladesh which is one of the largest garment exporters in the world and which contributes to the economy of the country in terms of employment and revenue generation.

A major portion of the article is based on and conclusions have been drawn solely on the author’s perception and her own findings, and not based on the survey findings. Misinterpreting survey finding, drawing conclusions based on own perception, and misguiding readers to think that the article is based on the survey findings is not called for specially for such a sensitive sector and particularly at a time when the world is passing a troubled time.

Thus we have to think twice before agreeing to the blame-game of the author of the article “Facade of workers’ safety beginning to show cracks during the pandemic” and try to encourage the industry to recover which is not only contributing to the economy of the country as a whole but also contributing to the economic, livelihoods and social value addition to the workers’ lives – and these contributions are way much greater than what is actually captured in statistics.

* Fahim S. Chowdhury is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED), BRAC University.


Related Article:

The disconnect between the industry and others
by Rubana Huq

Dr Rubana Huq is the President of BGMEA and the Managing Director of Mohammadi Group.
Her Twitter handle is @Rubanah.

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