By Kayes Ahmed
June 28, 2013
Photo: Hassan Bipul
I have been in a summer torpor this year, which is not very usual for me. But just as I was getting ready to surrender to the torpor, President Obama decided to stick it to Bangladesh. That woke me right up. This morning the New York Times tweet announced that the US is going to suspend the GSP (Generalized System of Trade preferences) for Bangladesh.
GSP is a program that was set up by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to promote development around the world. If Bangladesh does not deserve some developmental aid, I am not sure which country does deserve the succour from something like the GSP. Bangladesh is allowed to export some 5,000 products to the US — duty free. Unfortunately and maybe fortunately the biggest exports from Bangladesh garments are subject to duty and tariff. So the impact of this cowardly and cynical move may be somewhat muted.
Dear readers do not pay attention to the town criers who would get up on top of the minarets and yell that this decision came due to Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza collapse. Nope, this is Obama catering to his base. I am an Obama supporter but not a blind one. There has been rumblings from the disgruntled labour activists and the various companies that got impacted by the globalisation and gradual move of jobs and business of the garments sector to China and now Bangladesh. This suspension comes from a 2007 filing by the AFL-CIO (a labour union based entity on a date to irrelevance in the very near future). I have written in another article (Don’t kill the Golden Goose) about the efforts of AFL-CIO. I have told everyone who would listen that one ignores the AFL-CIO in a democratic administration at their great peril. There was no counter narrative to the AFL-CIO narrative but just boasting by the factory owners and the labour leaders like Shirin Akther. What these piffle-snorts failed to understand that AFL-CIO is a key component to the Obama GOTV. For the uninitiated, GOTV = Get Out The Vote. This is a huge data driven operation where each individual voter is pre-selected and a message is crafted and tailored to that individual. Now someone has to get to that specific voter. Well, AFL-CIO is the machine that delivers the message by hand after the long technological gestation. Believe me, they are important to Obama and the Democrats.
AFL-CIO set up an office in Dhaka and they were very angry about the killing of a labour activist in Bangladesh. So am I. What AFL-CIO demanded is that Bangladesh workers are paid “living wage”. Yes, that is the tear jerker slogan “living wage” that is used by everyone without knowing what it means to be living. As if people in the garments industry and other low age industry do not have a living wage! What they really meant is that they want “wage parity” with the US. Once you achieve parity then there will be no reason for the Bangladeshi garments industry to exist. I am sure under the guise of brotherly love and concerns there was the great desire to see some of the work come back to say, um, North Carolina.
However, even with all of the pressure, the needle did not move because there was no plausible deniability for the Obama Administration to the fact that they are pandering to AFL-CIO and other labour organisations. All that changed with Rana Plaza collapse and the following inapt and bumbling handling of the event by the government and the garments industry. First and foremost was the immediate defensive recoil by the Awami League government which tried to keep the foreign media out of the country. Yes, the Prime Minister said, “we welcome everyone but there are rules blah, blah” (Bangladesh’s prime minister: ‘Accidents happen’). One of the so-called rules dictated by the government was that any video or news must be vetted (read censored) by the government under the pain of jail time. Well, this stopped the CNN, ABC News and many other organisations from reporting from the ground. In the days of internet, twitter and other instant communication this was bull headed public relations disaster. Christiane Amanpour and other journalists started to portray the negatives all the time on TV and other news outlets. In the absence of real news there was gossip and innuendo. This created the atmosphere under which the Obama operatives decided to bring up Bangladesh for a GSP suspension review.
What did the garments industry and Bangladesh government do in face of the Tsunami of bad press? Nothing at all useful. No one owned up to the fact that yes it is a disaster and we need your help to better our infrastructure. This happens in every country in certain phase of development. Think about the Triangle Shirt Factory fire in NYC which killed nearly a 1,000 workers. So many mining disasters and thousands of Chinese railway workers are dying in the wild west of the US. It takes great courage to acknowledge your faults and flaws and do a mea culpa followed by a solid plan of redemption. Acknowledging deficiencies does not make one deficient, just sets one on a task to cure that. Did anyone do anything like that? NO! In fact one of the top officials in the government said, “Compliance with rights, including labor rights, will necessarily be gradual” which gave ammunition to the naysayers about the unwillingness of Bangladesh to change. Yes, we know it will take time but take the first step and then worry about how long it will take. Show the world that you care and are willing to start the process. It is always amazing for me to see these people who sit with towels on the back of their chairs (why the towel by the way?) make these pronouncements which are almost always unencumbered by the thought process.
So, Bangladesh has lost the GSP. This is not the end of the world for Bangladesh. This should give us the real incentive to do the following:
Move us the value ladder and produce goods in smaller quantity and with better margin. Even today I buy roughly $3 million worth of goods from China every year. Not because they are cheap but because they have high quality products and are flexible with credit facilities.
Genuinely undertake reforms so that labour practices improve and buildings are safer. This will mean better building and operation codes and shutting down of factories that are unsafe. The codes must be enforced without the hand of corruption and influence peddlers.
Humanize the story of Bangladesh. The Wall Street Journal wrote a fascinating article on June 26 titled, “Factory Paychecks trump danger, long days for Bangladeshi women”. In it they profile a 16-year-old girl Mahinur Akther who was rescued from Rana Plaza and yet was going back to work because her paycheck is the only “Living Wage” for her and her family. If the likes of AFL-CIO succeed what will happen to people like Mahinur? There is another narrative but in the globalised instant communication world the narrative must be presented without any fear or shame. We need to be able to say, “We are a poor country and cheap labour is our entry price into the world’s development race. Our heroes are the Mahinurs and they need a shot at better life too”.
Finally, stop with the censor and win the battle of the narratives. Censorship just creates more festering negatives.
I am heartbroken that the US has taken the decision to revoke GSP facility. As a Bangladeshi American I cannot but blame Obama, my President, for being callous and jaundiced. But, I cannot also help but blame the factory owners and the Bangladesh government who do not understand that they live in a globalised and competitive world. They need to take a cultural bath in the Hudson River if they are going to do business on the banks of The Hudson.
Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.