I laugh when the western media goes on a rant about us, the eastern democracy, the eastern economy and the eastern human rights condition. Once upon a time, in a decolonised space, many non-residents wanted to be interstitial, pledged to be citizens of the world, with occasional references of having a cup of chai here and listening to the briefest interludes of sitar there. But all that have changed. The once expected eastern defeatism does not fly anymore; and contrary to the position of “holier than thou”, most western states are now prime examples of kakistocracy.
At a time like this, a Guardian report on the Spice Girls T-shirts bearing the “#IWannaBeASpiceGirl” message was, if not anything, but most distastefully spicy. The Guardian “investigation” finishes all the accusations almost in the first couple of paragraphs. It speaks about the workers in a particular factory being paid at 35p an hour, being verbally (thank God for not including the physical) abused, “forced” to work for 16 hours a day, and producing T-shirts for celebrities selling at UK pounds19.40, donating 11.60 to Comic Relief's fund to help “champion equality for women.” Here's the response:
1) The article does not mention how much the factory was paid. Paying a factory USD 1.5-2.5 range T-shirts and claiming fame to ethical sourcing and random references to “living wage” must be stopped. The reason we can't pay our workers more is because we don't get a fair price.
2) The charity to which the money is being donated pledges equality for women. I can't but agree to the cause, specially because Bangladesh, according to the ILO report, has the lowest gender pay gap in the world.
3) Referring to “working in inhuman conditions” in one line and then saying that the factory has air conditioning in the factory floor is a serious contradiction.
4) The report, in utter bad taste, also mentions the factory being part-owned by a minister in Bangladesh's “authoritarian coalition” government. Seriously? Brexit happened because of a few politicians deluding the citizens, as a result of which United Kingdom is marathoning towards an economic collapse and here we are, ironically reading about a moral deficit in Bangladesh, which is growing at the fastest pace with a 7.86 percent growth target?
5) The report also refers to “impossible” targets being set for workers. In compliant factories, (Interstoff is certainly one of them), the targets are set by industrial engineers and workers often find them hard to accept. But with time, most factories can explain that there is a clear relationship between wage and efficiency. Bangladesh, limping at a national average of 40 percent efficiency has a long way to go with other factories in the world sporting an easy 70 percent mark.
6) The over-generalisation of Bangladeshi factories having “gross violations of labour laws and human rights” in the report is unacceptable. Rather the brand position was appreciable, which promised to stay “committed to help this country and workers to improve their welfare.” Thank you, brand.
In the report, the blatant tendency to draw hasty conclusions, and cater to popular appeal is clear. If wage is a concern, then fair price must be taken into the discourse; if abuse is an issue, then specific cases must be reviewed with an objective yardstick; if fingers are being pointed towards specific owners, then the target should not be political castigation, rather the general reputation of the particular owner, who has tirelessly contributed to the industry.
Margins in readymade garmenting are poor. This is not news. What is news is that we have more than three million female garment workers who have graduated from abject poverty to a position of economic empowerment, projection of which is totally missing in the narrative. Besides, all must kindly remember that perception and isolated complaints cannot make news. Overall factory conditions must be studied in depth before filing such reports.
Stories of workers celebrating new year in their best clothes are seldom reported; tales of garment workers attending universities never make headlines; workers working and swinging their heads to music from the top charts are never photographed. What is repeatedly making the front page is the story of low wage and abuse.
Let us remind the world that contrary to their belief our workers are not subjected to dreadful working conditions; our workers fill our workspaces up with eagerness and enthusiasm.
Difficulties and complaints are common in any workplace. But that is addressable. What is not addressable is the continuous factory bashing that the many western media outfits constantly engage in. This way, the chances of these women working in the sector get undervalued. If corrections are to be made in specific and isolated cases, then that must be dealt with wisdom and with an intent to add value to the workforce. That cannot be done by random accusations. To us, our workers make us. To them, our businesses sustain their lives. Any attempt to diminish that sense of pride of ours, will never be able to dent our spirit or resolve. We will be who we are today.
I was speaking to a friend last night who was referring to expectant mothers rushing to America for their childbirth, with the hope of an American citizenship. Another friend, steeped in extreme Asian adulation, differed and proposed China instead, not knowing that China doesn't offer the same privilege and that the Chinese economy has just reported the slowest growth of 6.6 percent in the last three decades.
At that point, I stepped in and gently reminded them that all those citizenship-craving mothers will have to refund all their tickets, as there aren't any other feasible alternatives anymore. For the people of today and tomorrow, in spite of all the invectives, criticism and critique, the only address is Home … for here, now and forever. No other land counts, no other promises prevail.
Dr Rubana Huq is the managing director of Mohammadi Group. Her Twitter handle is @Rubanah.