Pandemic stresses in the global market have brought severe challenges to the garment industry in Bangladesh.
The sector needs to get flexibility, sustainability, labour welfare, investments, upgrading, diversification in infrastructure, and adequate health regulations to face the challenges of a new normal world during the Covid-19 and post-Covid-19 periods. The process should start by vaccinating 6 million RMG workers at our earliest.
Hundreds and thousands of people are dying from Covid-19 infections every day around the world. Unfortunately, despite some notable initiatives, the Covid-19 pandemic is still rampaging across the world with its new infectious strains.
In this situation, about six million Ready-Made Garments (RMG) workers in Bangladesh are under serious threat as they have not been vaccinated against Covid-19 yet. Vaccinating RGM workers is extremely important as the industry is the country's economic backbone which contributes more than 13 percent to the national GDP.
Studies show that the global apparel market is expected to grow from $1.5 trillion in 2020 to about $2.25 trillion by 2025, with global demand for apparel and footwear growing every day.
The regional distribution of the demand of the RMG sector remains consistent between 2015 and 2020, while Bangladesh still maintains its position as the second-largest apparel producer globally, expecting to earn $50 billion by 2022 despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
More importantly, as reported by the national and international media, European and North American RMG buyers have recently started shifting their focus from China and India which has resulted in Bangladesh experiencing an increase in the number of new orders.
However, the question is, how much will the average Bangladeshi RMG factory owner or worker benefit from this potential boom in the economic cycle during the pandemic? We believe that without the immediate vaccination of Bangladeshi RMG workers, it may still be a cloud-castle dream for Bangladesh to yield benefits from increasing global orders.
Bangladesh RMG's two biggest competitors, Vietnam, and China have already taken some excellent initiatives to vaccinate their workers. For example, in the fight against the pandemic, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour encouraged its workers to buy vaccines.
In turn, many RMG buyers said they were willing to pay for vaccines to vaccinate their workers. In that regard, Nidek Vietnam Chairman Luu Kim Hong said, "large numbers of workers are working in industrial parks and export processing zones and they live very close to dormitories.
As a result, they have a greater risk of virus infection that will affect company production and workers' lives. As such, the company is willing to pay to vaccinate its employees".
Similarly, a representative of the Vietnam Textile and Garments Group (Vinatex), which employs more than 150,000 workers, said that all companies in the country's textile and garment industry—which has 2.5 million workers—have agreed to pay for vaccinating their workers.
In Cambodia, a Covid-19 vaccination project was launched in June 2021 where its garment workers were vaccinated en masse. The move is a rare highlight for the Southeast Asian country's $7 billion garment sector, representing the country's largest employer and 16 percent of its gross domestic product of Cambodia. It is worth noting that Cambodia managed its required number of vaccines from China and India.
The world's only private Covid-19 vaccination project was launched in Indonesia in May 2021, with more than 10 million workers registered to receive a Chinese-developed jab. The programme, run by the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KADIN), lobbied the government to allow its workers to fast-track vaccine access instead of waiting in the official queue; this initiative was highly appreciated.
Another notable example of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was launched by Unilever Indonesia which was one of the first to vaccinate workers at the Bekasi factory outside Jakarta in the hopes of boosting vaccine immunity.
China, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and other RMG producing countries have given the highest priority to vaccinating their workers at manufacturing hubs and Bangladesh should follow a similar strategy.
The Bangladesh Government, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), and even the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) have yet to take any significant steps to prioritise the vaccination of RMG workers.
It is worth exploring whether big clothing brands and retailers should have played a more constructive CSR role in vaccinating all RMG workers in Bangladesh.
The wealthy nations of the world have played the despicable game of hoarding vaccines from the very beginning. For example, many countries secured their extra doses of vaccines beyond what they needed despite other countries in the world struggling to secure sufficient doses for their large populations.
Research suggests that in many rich countries, those additional vaccines were not even used with millions of extra doses of vaccines being expected to expire soon. On the other hand, many developing countries have struggled to administer vaccines because of their financial, bilateral, or multilateral constraints.
Surprisingly, while the WHO and ILO were primarily responsible for coordinating and enforcing immunisation policies properly, studies have shown that this was not the case. The WHO and ILO have not issued any constructive guidelines on vaccinating workers in Bangladesh or anywhere else globally.
Even at this crucial time, Bangladeshi RMG workers continue to produce garments for their Western and European consumers. However, certain brands rescinded their orders without considering the consequences of their inhumane decisions that left thousands of workers without jobs and a source of earning to feed their families.
The international clothing brands need to consider RMG workers' well-being and livelihoods because they immensely contribute to the brands' bottom line.
Thus, it is crucial to know how RMG workers can be quickly vaccinated with the assistance of the Western and European countries and their clothing brands.
Several studies have shown that giant clothing fashions/brands did not increase the expenditure on Bangladesh RMG since 2013. While they have taken some initiatives to monitor RMG factories after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, it was not enough to live up to their commitment to improving the wellbeing and livelihoods of RMG workers in Bangladesh.
It is about time that global clothing companies contribute to the vaccination of the RMG workers in Bangladesh. It will only cost the 100 top international brands to donate only $1.2 million each. Walmart, Levi's, Adidas, Nike, Zara, and H&M and many other renowned brands/retailers could easily bear this cost so that the RMG workers are vaccinated and productive.
Moreover, in that regard, we have some recommendations for the international buyers and they are:
- International apparel brands could establish a 'vaccine bank' to provide free vaccines to the Bangladeshi RMG workers;
- Big clothing brands could offer other financial assistance to the Bangladesh RMG workers to help them cope with increased economic hardships and uncertainty during the pandemic;
- If necessary, the European Union could join forces with the ILO, the WHO, the global brands, the Government of Bangladesh, and the BGMEA to arrange and oversee the vaccination program for RMG workers.
Big apparel brands and retailers in the US, Europe and other countries have a moral responsibility to help provide free vaccines to Bangladeshi RMG workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. When the RMG workers are vaccinated, it will also ensure the safe and sustainable production of RMG products for American and European consumers.
ASM Anam Ullah is an academic at the University of Sydney, Australia.
Dr ASM Amanullah is a Professor of Sociology and Public Health Expert at Dhaka University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org