Strong economic diplomacy urgent to create new markets, she tells UNB

Rubana Huq, the first woman president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), is determined to change the current labour narrative in the sector here by ensuring the welfare of workers in her two-year term so that no one can call them 'blood-suckers' anymore.

She also wants to give a serious focus on handling the image deficit of readymade garment (RMG) sector, and give the world a positive impression about good labour practices in the country with some visible initiatives.

In a recent interview with Abdur Rahman Jahangir of UNB, the BGMEA president said she will try to persuade the government to allocate them a spacious land in a suitable area like Mirsarai of Chittagong for creating an exclusive RMG factory hub and thus help them relocate factories there from the capital and other cities.

Rubana also laid emphasis on intensifying economic diplomacy for exploring non-traditional or new markets across the world for boosting the export of RMG and other products and ensuring fair prices for producers.

"I'll try my best to change the current labour narrative alongside focusing on restoring the good image of the RMG sector. We're usually called the blood-suckers (owners). We'll ensure the necessary welfare of workers so that no one can call us this in the future. I'll also put in my best efforts in my two-year tenure to establish in the world market that there's a good labour practice in Bangladesh," she said.

The BGMEA chief said their public relation (PR) team has started working to deal with the image crisis and project their success stories. "Our main problem is that we don't have our own ambassadorship, and we can't project our good works. We've many projects and plans for the welfare of our workers but those don't get publicity."

Rubana said she has a plan for setting up schools for the children of RMG workers, mainly female ones.

"We want to do a lot more things for our workers, but we don't get response from our buyers as they're reluctant about increasing the prices of our products. We need to have such a profit margin for carrying out some activities for the welfare of our workers."

The BGMEA boss said all stakeholders, including the buyers, should extend their cooperation with the RMG factory owners to ensure the wellbeing of workers. "Buyers talk about ethical sourcing, but they're unwilling to increase even a cent." She urged the local and international NGOs and rights bodies to mount pressure on the buyers to increase the prices of apparels so that factory owners can take good steps for the welfare of workers.

Rubana also talked about the current challenges the RMG sector is facing. "Apart from the image crisis, we've a challenge to cope with the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is characterised by greater automation. We're now concentrating on technological innovation to overcome the challenge and move forward. "

Besides, she said, Bangladesh's graduation from LDC will also create some new challenges for RMG sector. "We'll witness double transformation by 2027 due to the LDC graduation. So, we'll lose out if we don't have the backward linkage." The BGMEA president said they have another challenge in finding out new markets in the world by strengthening economic diplomacy.

"Our export to new (non-traditional) markets marked a significant rise over the last five years. We're now exporting up to $5 billion only to the new markets. We've continued our efforts to explore the new market since the government has a stimulus package for emerging markets," Rubana said.

She said BGMEA and the foreign, commerce, labour and industries ministries need to work together to intensify the economic diplomacy and explore new markets like Brazil, Russia and other potential countries where there is a scope for exporting RMG products.

"About 40 percent tariff is imposed on our products in Brazil and Russia. So, it's a time for strengthening the economic diplomacy. As long as there's no government-to-government strong economic diplomacy, our barriers to export, including high tariff, won't be removed," Rubana observed. The BGMEA president said making the RMG industry sustainable is also a big challenge. "That's why we're forming RMG sustainability council. We have another big challenge to enhance the competence of workers in accordance with their wages. It's necessary to create a linking between the wages and the skill. Workers' wages get increased without enhancing their expertise. It's not justified."

Rubana said they want to create a RMG factory hub outside Dhaka and other cities, but lack of land, infrastructure and utility services are major obstacles to it. "I had to wait for three years for a gas connection to my own factory."

"The government should give RMG owners necessary land for creating the RMG hub. We've been given about 500 acres of land at Baushia under Gazaria upazila in Munshiganj district to establish a garment village, but it's not a suitable location," the BGMEA president added.

She said they are now working to convince the government to give them a land in Mirsarai to build the garment village. "We'll hold an internal meeting on July 7 to discuss the issue."

Rubana plans to fulfill Annisul's dream, write his biography

Rubana Huq has planned to write the biography of her late husband Annisul Huq alongside putting in efforts to materialise his dream to make Dhaka a clean city.

She is, however, still undecided whether she will join politics following the footsteps of her husband, the former mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) who passed away on November 30, 2017 at the age of 65.

"I'm not sure what I'll do in the future. But one thing I know is that I'll take a new project on completion of my tenure as the BGMEA president. The project is to write the biography of Annis. I'm very eager about it," the BGMEA boss said.

Rubana said she is still undecided whether she will join politics. "There comes a time when some unexpected incidents take place that change the course of life. So, I can't say what will happen in the future, but I want to move forward with transparency and determination."

But, she said, if any other responsibility is bestowed upon her, she will then think of it. "So, I'm not willing to say yes or no about joining politics right now."

The BGMEA president said her husband dreamt of turning Dhaka into a beautiful city. "His simple dream was that no wall of Dhaka would remain dirty while many walls would have visible beautiful graffiti."

She said Annisul had spoken to some artists before falling sick to make it happen, but could not implement it. "I urge the current mayor to take an initiative for implementing it."

Rubana said various social messages can be highlighted with artworks on the walls. "We can also give some messages on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) alongside social ones. It'll help [authorities] beautify Dhaka."

She said people used to gather at some places for chatting and having quality time in the past, but this community concept has now disappeared. "So, Annisul had another dream of restoring this community concept and increase social interaction among the city dwellers."

The BGMEA president said her husband wanted to take such a project to create a scope for a weekly social gathering by blocking some roads. "He had a plan to first block off the Gulshan-2 circle on Friday without hampering traffic flow. Popup shops can be set up there with traditional fair like Meena Bazar and concert so that people can enjoy and interact there."

Rubana said she talked to some architects who suggested making such a weekly social gathering on road No 103 near Pink City. "I'll propose the mayor for creating a scope for popup gathering every Friday there. If we can initiate it, then the community concept will be brought back. It'll help increase social connection and intimacy among people."

She said the community concept is very important for a city like Dhaka where fields are disappearing along with social bonding and contact among people. "Now, we don't know our neighbours and don't have contact with people living next to our houses. Scopes for moral degradation are created when social contacts are diminished. Drug abuse and frustration have marked a sharp rise for the lack of social contact."

"That's why Annis had a plan to increase social contact and intimacy among people through popup gatherings in the city. So, I call upon the current mayor to take measures to make it happen," the BGMEA president said.

Rubana said she is making her best her efforts to successfully discharge her responsibilities as the BGMEA president. "I've a plan both for enhancing the image of the sector and the welfare of garment workers."

She also said the BGMEA will take some visible steps for the wellbeing of female garment workers and their children. "The buyers need to extend their cooperation in this regard."

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