Managing director of Mohammadi Group, Rubana Huq, has become the first woman president of Bangladesh’s apex garments manufacturing and export body BGMEA. In an interview with Prothom Alo on 7 April, she talked at length on owner-labour relations, the crises and the future of the readymade garment industry.
Prothom Alo: Congratulations. How has the journey been, coming so far?
Rubana Huq: Any sort of achievement doesn’t seem all that big anymore. After weathering such a storm in my personal life, now every day seems just another work day. I do not have a lot of dreams, but I do dream of doing good. I have reached a point in life where I don’t have to worry about basic necessities and I do not have a lot of needs. I have more or less everything. I have my home, my children have grown up. Every day I ask myself, what more? Since I have no more to want, it is now time to give.
In order to give, one has to determine a way. To me, the readymade garment sector is that way. If I do something good here, if I take a good decision, it can change the lives of so many people. I will be responsible both for their happiness and their suffering. I must proceed with care. I must work hard and I will do so.
Prothom Alo: Your industry is basically a female labour-intensive one. Why should this large number of women workers be happy that you are in the readymade garment industry and have become the BGMEA president?
Rubana Huq: They will be happy when they feel that there is a woman in a position to offer them empathy. Women are mothers. We take pride in perhaps understanding more than many men. We have to make a lot of adjustments in life. The women workers will also understand me.
Prothom Alo: There is a negative perception about readymade garment industry owners, the sector as a whole, and BGMEA. How will you address this?
Rubana Huq: I think there has been a lot of good work. I will open a cell or centre for these positive stories. Many among us are doing good work, but they do not give access to the media. They are scared about what may be written about them. I want to work on this, to reveal the good work that is being done. The positive stories in the garment industry far outnumber the negative ones. If I take up this task and ask that the media be let in, then the narrative will change. A place of mutual trust will emerge.
Prothom Alo: But we see quite a different picture. When there are demonstrations, the police swoop down. There are arrests, workers are laid off, there have even been threats of abduction and even death threats. How will you return to that area of mutual trust?
Rubana Huq: We often let crises get out of hand. This is wrong. If there is a will, there is a way out of any situation. I may be wrong, but I feel that there is a lack of good ambassadorship in the garment industry. I think I can resolve many of the problems by talking to the workers, taking time out to explain things to them.
This is a country with the highest number of compliance factories, the highest number of green factories, the industry which has turned women’s lives around. Why will we not tell our story? Why can we not take our economic diplomacy ahead?
I have an idea. We can enter the positive stories of our workers on the barcode labels of the garments. Their stories can be read simply by scanning the labels and everyone will know what we are doing. This won’t cost an extra 10 cents. The buyers might not want to pay for it, but BGMEA has a fund. I have certain ideas like this that I think will bear results.
Prothom Alo: Much is being said about workers’ rights, but it is also said that you all are not willing to give the workers their rights.
Rubana Huq: We have had some bad experiences with labour unions. We are scared when we hear about labour unions. But we have formed a workers’ participatory committee and are proceeding gradually. It has done some good things. But if there have to be labour unions as per the buyers’ demands, this has to be done gradually and taken to a position of trust. But if we have to have labour unions, then we have to do so in our own way.
Prothom Alo: ‘In our own way’ – what does that mean?
Rubana Huq: I have a plan. We could amend the labour act and have gender-based unions. In a factory where there are 80 per cent women, then the labour leader would be a woman. This would change things and make things much easier.
Prothom Alo: We invariably relent to things only under pressure from outside. For example, a lot was done after the Rana Plaza collapse, but only under outside pressure. Why can’t BGMEA understand what is the way ahead?
Rubana Huq: Actually we can’t do anything with an open mind. We are full of trepidation. Take for example the Accord-Alliance platforms of Europe and American buyers. All the engineers of Accord are Bangladeshis. If we could take them in, we could have a counter platform, But we could not do so. We have faced a lot of setbacks, so the moment of proposal crops out, our immediate reaction is to reject it. We have to work on all this. It would be best if we could take up our own monitoring and create a place of respect. We do not want to swallow prescriptions from outside any more. We have to ensure our own position of respect.
Prothom Alo: You blame the buyers for low prices, but you all fail to drive a good bargain. If one owner quotes a price, another one comes forward and undercuts him. How can you resolve this?
Rubana Huq: One of our directors has solved this problem. They have merged four of companies into one and negotiate prices together. They have benefitted from this. This could be a role model. BGMEA should have a cell to bargain with the buyers. About 80 per cent of our business is through buying houses because we do not understand this area. We can help them out if they include us in the negotiations.
But the market has changed and so must we. We have to find markets, change our mission and our vision, look into expanding our market if we want to advance further.
Prothom Alo: What will you do to create a human BGMEA? BGMEA does not have a very human face.
Rubana Huq: Actually there could be many reasons as to why BGMEA has a rather negative image, but not all these are true. We do a lot of good work. Sometimes a few bad examples tarnish the image of the sector and the entire industry suffers.
Actually, a human BGMEA is necessary not only for the workers but for the entrepreneurs too. Actually for the media as well so that when they come here they are not given misleading information. We want to explain what sort of institution we want to build. My predecessors have done a lot and worked hard with commitment. But now with a woman as president of BGMEA, there is a renewed sense of hope. I will strive to win people’s confidence and love. I am confident that I can do so. I shall continue in this endeavour.
* This interview appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir