Surprisingly, an article published in ‘The Guardian’ on December 23, 2023, under the title “Woman making Christmas jumpers for the UK turns to sex work to pay bills” asserted that female workers in the Ready-Made Garments (RMG) industry of Bangladesh have resorted to sex work to meet their financial obligations. However, upon closer examination of the article, it becomes evident that it predominantly focuses on a single RMG worker while making sweeping allegations about the specific sector.
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This accusation appears to be unfounded when considering the actual number of RMG workers in the sector. Presently, there are around 4 million workers employed in the RMG sector, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), with 80% of them being females from various age groups. This translates to approximately 3.2 million female workers actively engaged in the sector. But ‘The Guardian’s article has taken or counted or examined only one single case of a female worker’s involvement in the sex business! This is scientifically not counted for any such examination to any research article, and furthermore, one single woman’s personal engagement must not prove that Bangladesh’s entire female RMG workforce status should be sex workers. Very calculatingly, it indicates that The British newspaper The Guardian has an agenda to turn-down image of Bangladesh’s RMG sector as well Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government.
Looking at the vibrant RMG sector in Bangladesh, an article that places blame on the entire industry serves as a clear attempt to tarnish the reputation of both the sector and the government on a global scale. The publication of such an article in a reputed international newspaper prompts the question of why this specific content is being disseminated to a worldwide audience.
The legal status of sex work varies globally, impacting the safety, health, and rights of sex workers. Addressing stigma, and discrimination, and distinguishing consensual work from trafficking is crucial, emphasizing the need for a sensitive approach to debates surrounding sex workers’ rights and well-being. This means that Bangladesh is not exempt from the global issue of sex work. This is not something we support under any circumstances, and it goes against societal expectations. However, individuals may choose this way of income to meet their personal needs, and it often occurs in situations that deviate from the norm.
The RMG sector of Bangladesh
Indeed, what are the real scenarios of the RMG sector of Bangladesh? As we all know that over the past decade, the RMG sector in Bangladesh has experienced remarkable growth, solidifying its position as a key player in the global textile and apparel industry. Renowned for its competitive edge in producing cost-effective and high-quality garments, Bangladesh has become the second-largest apparel exporter in the world.
The sector’s development over the last 10 years can be attributed to a confluence of factors, including strategic government initiatives, technological advancements, and a skilled labor force. Bangladesh’s commitment to creating a favorable business environment has resulted in increased foreign direct investment and the establishment of state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities. The government’s policy reforms and incentives have played a pivotal role in fostering a business-friendly climate, facilitating the sector’s expansion.
Technological advancements have been instrumental in enhancing efficiency and productivity within the RMG industry. Automation and digitization have streamlined production processes, reducing lead times and enhancing the overall competitiveness of Bangladeshi garments in the global market. Additionally, a focus on sustainability and ethical practices has positioned Bangladesh as a responsible player in the industry, catering to the growing demand for eco-friendly and socially responsible products.
The skilled workforce in Bangladesh’s RMG sector has been a driving force behind its success. The country’s labor force is not only cost-effective but also adept at adapting to evolving industry standards. As the RMG sector continues to evolve, Bangladesh remains at the forefront, demonstrating resilience, innovation, and a commitment to sustainable growth in the global garment industry.
In 2023, Bangladesh’s Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector faced a mix of challenges and achievements. Challenges included labor issues, global economic slowdown, lukewarm orders, and domestic problems like gas and electricity shortages. Despite these hurdles, the sector sustained growth amid global economic turmoil, embracing circularity and green initiatives, achieving value addition, and expanding exports to new markets.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) President, Faruque Hassan, highlighted multifaceted challenges but noted the sector’s resilience compared to competitors. The apparel sector contributed over 83% to the country’s total export earnings, reaching $42.83 billion in January-November 2023; a 4.35% growth.
However, a slowdown in orders due to the Russia-Ukraine war and rising interest rates impacted major export destinations, leading to a 15%-30% decline in orders. Inflation, reaching 6.8%, affected consumer demand in the US and Europe. Additionally, domestic turbulence included increased electricity and gas prices, foreign currency reserve shortages, and customs issues, hindering the $100 billion export target.
Labor-related challenges included fixing minimum wages, and triggering movements and unrest, resulting in violence and fatalities. Despite external pressures, Bangladesh maintained its position as the world’s second-largest apparel exporter.
Noteworthy achievements in 2023 included increased value addition, commitment to circularity and sustainability, and having 206 US Green Building Council-certified green factories. BGMEA outlined a green-focused agenda for 2024, emphasizing recycling, circularity, market diversification, and clean energy. Faruque Hassan urged uninterrupted energy supply and efficient customs for growth in the upcoming year. Overall, the sector aims to continue its momentum by focusing on innovation, technology, and sustainability over the next decade.
Unraveling Complex Realities
Bangladesh’s renowned RMG sector, the world’s second-largest after China, is facing turmoil amid recent workers’ unrest and political violence. Eight US congressmen urged American buyers to advocate for “fair wages and rights” for RMG workers, further straining the industry’s image.
A Guardian article by Thaslima Begum shed light on only a woman turning to sex work to cope with financial challenges linked to her role in producing Christmas jumpers for the UK market. Local stakeholders condemned the piece, considering it an attempt to tarnish the RMG sector’s reputation.
Leaders from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) dismissed the narrative, emphasizing the industry’s role in empowering women. BKMEA’s Mohammad Hatem questioned international brands’ accountability, arguing that they should pay reasonable prices to ensure fair wages.
Allegations of a deliberate conspiracy to undermine Bangladesh’s garment industry surfaced, with BGMEA asserting a foreign-led campaign. Despite challenges, the sector continues to progress, with Bangladesh boasting 50 of the top 100 global garment factories, surpassing China.
Efforts to enhance environmental sustainability in garment factories have earned Bangladesh recognition, with 173 green factories, the highest globally. However, recent controversies, including the US congressmen’s letter, threaten the industry’s positive image.
Stakeholders, including CIRDAP Research Director Mohammed HelalUddin, view the Guardian’s report as an ill-intentioned effort to hinder Bangladesh’s growth. They call for collaborative initiatives among international buyers, brands, governments, workers, and owners to safeguard and advance the garment industry, emphasizing that the controversial narrative does not accurately represent the sector’s prevailing conditions.
The Guardian’s published news highlighted a wage increase for workers from Tk 8,000 to Tk 12,500 in November of this year. This adjustment was implemented based on practical considerations within the industry. Therefore, it is not justified to assert that human rights are being violated by denying workers adequate opportunities or conveniences.
Six-point agenda: Bangladesh’s vision for the future in TICFA
Earlier in September this year, Bangladesh, led by Senior Secretary TapanKanti Ghosh, aimed for a collaborative future with the US through Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (TICFA). Ghosh seeks US support to overcome hurdles in transitioning from an LDC, focusing on SDGs.
The US delegation raises concerns about cotton exports, trade union rights, insurance sector foreign investment, and rice export subsidies. Post-industrial disasters, the US suspended GSP privileges for 97% of Bangladesh’s exports.
In negotiations, Bangladesh opposes importing US cotton without fumigation, aligning with regional practices. The six-point agenda covers graduation support, market access, TFA facilitation, US investment, technology transfer, and ethical business practices. US Ambassador Peter Haas expresses optimism for swift progress, emphasizing mutual economic collaboration.
Labor rights, child labor eradication, and IP protection to be the priority
Bangladesh is determined to secure preferential trade terms in the vast US market, focusing on tariff exemptions for garment exports, notably in the ready-made garments sector. The contentious issue involves the duty-free export of garments made from US cotton, previously resisted by the US. Dhaka persists in addressing this during the upcoming TICFA meeting to alleviate the current 15.62 percent duty on garment exports. The US emphasizes resolving labor conditions, rights, eradicating child labor, empowering unions, and safeguarding intellectual property. Additionally, the US shows interest in probing Bangladesh’s democratic and human rights landscape, prompting a prepared response from Bangladesh, highlighting the gravity of the impending discussions.
Based on the evidence presented in the article, it is clear that using a single example of a worker turning to ‘Sex Work’ to make ends meet is not a valid basis for blaming the entire RMG sector for inadequate wage provision. To address any doubts, it’s essential to recognize the various challenges associated with increasing wages within certain limits. This responsibility doesn’t solely rest on the government; international importers also play a role in this matter. If importers fail to provide sufficient prices for imported goods, it becomes challenging for the industries in a country to meet the minimum wage for their livelihood.