Being a densely populated country, one of the major sources of Bangladesh’s competitiveness is the young and vibrant workforce. We have around six million economically active population, and various estimates suggest that around two million people are joining our labor force every year.
In fact, workers are the lifeline of Bangladesh’s readymade garment industry. There are around four million workers employed in this sector directly, of whom 60 percent are female.
While the economic prosperity of our nation greatly depends on the optimum use of our human resources by making them skilled and competent enough, it is equally important to ensure better social protection and well-being of the people to create an enabling environment to raise productivity.
The apparel industry is a time-tested industry, which has made commendable progress in the area of sustainability, especially workers’ well-being and industrial relations. Starting from the elimination of child labor in the mid-nineties, and the emerging compliance issues, including timely payment of wages, ensuring the minimum wage, overtime, hygiene at the workplace, and so on, the industry has responded well on all the issues of compliance and workers’ rights.
A paradigm shift has taken place in the area of structural, fire and electrical safety at the workplace which was supported by international brands and donors like the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in addition to the lead role played by our government. As a result of all these committed and continued efforts, Bangladesh is now one of the safest apparel manufacturing countries in the world and offers the best sustainable solution to our valued clients.
In order to ensure workers’ well-being and safety at the workplace, the Labour Act was amended twice since 2013, and the Labour Rules was promulgated in 2015. The formation of a safety committee in every factory has been made mandatory. Workers’ participation committee has also been made mandatory through elections.
A central fund has been created under the supervision of the government where garment factories are contributing 0.03 percent of their export earnings for the workers’ welfare purposes. Undoubtedly, these are all positive moves by the industry to ensure the well-being of its workers, yet much more needs to be done to ensure their healthy upkeep.
While we prepare ourselves to transit to a developing country and envision becoming a developed economy by 2041, an inclusive approach is required to ensure the well-being of our people. In fact, we need to understand the dynamics of the livelihood difficulties of the marginal income groups, so that befitting policies and interventions can be planned and designed for them.
For instance, Covid-19 has exposed the inherent weakness of the health and hygiene issue of our workers. The public health reality of the workers and their vulnerability to viral contamination and the lack of logistics and infrastructure to protect them in a contagious environment is a big threat to our economic stability and sustainability.
Undoubtedly, the RMG industry has proved its resilience in preventing infections within the industry through a wholehearted response by the entrepreneurs, workers and employees by strictly following the health protocol. But the question remains around the hygiene of the places where they reside, the sanitation facilities and the transportation.
Similarly, we need to know the status of their other fundamental necessities, including nutrition and education. All these require having a data repository of the workers so that it can be used to formulate policies and plan development activities better. While pursuing the vision of Digital Bangladesh, having a demographic/socioeconomic/livelihood-based profiling of the workers digitally bears significant strategic importance.
With that view, the BGMEA has taken an initiative in collaboration with BRAC University to develop a digital repository of the workforce of the RMG industry. This includes the number of workers and their personal profile, including age, sex, marital status, information on infant and child, origin, residence, education, financial and digital literacy; professional profile, including skill competency and experience; health profile, including blood group, BMI (body mass index), health and nutrition-related aspects; and financial inclusion.
Thus, a digital repository or census for the RMG workforce is very important to ensure that the industry has an accurate and up-to-date scenario of its workers. This will help minimize the misinformation about the sector.
It is important to have such a database using appropriate technologies like the Geographic Information System (GIS) so that new categories of data can be collated in additional layers, and those are comparable and can be updated at fixed intervals.
The repository will be a useful tool to analyze the pattern of workers’ health and nutrition-related issues such as non-communicable and contagious diseases and maternity-related complications, hygiene-related issues at the workplace and at residence, food habits, access to healthcare facilities and expenses. It can also help assess the scope of re-skilling and up-skilling of the workers and employees.
Workers’ geographic locations, mobility, commuting pattern, mode of transportation, distance from home to factories, and the time needed to travel to factories, etc. can be assessed by accompanying data. Along with the workers’ current residence, their home districts, where their family is living, and from where the workers have migrated to their current residing place should be recorded for necessary and future interventions. Moreover, such a repository will help dispel many misconceptions about the industry with empirical evidence.
Developing such a repository will be a huge task and will require collaboration from stakeholders and development partners. In this phase of our economic transition, workers are our major strength and it would continue to remain so in the next few decades. Therefore, investing in them can’t be low profile and this can’t be done uninformed.
Under the visionary leadership of Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s economy has made remarkable progress over the past 13 years, and consequently our per capita income and standard of living have gone higher. To keep the momentum of the positive transformation in our economy and cope with the changes, strategic engagement and deployment of resources will be critical, and information will be vital for this.