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Exclusive Interview: Shafiqul Islam, Counselor of Commerce from Bangladesh Embassy

As part of the Mary Robinson Speaker Series on Business and Human Rights, Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter spoke at the Ford Foundation on November 19. The Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, Akter forcefully criticized both the Bangladesh government and Western retailers for what she interpreted as their inadequate contributions to labor reform. Present at the talk was Shafiqul Islam, the Counselor of Commerce at the Embassy of Bangladesh. Islam spoke exclusively to the Sourcing Journal about his take on Kalpona’s views and the larger question of Bangladesh’s struggles with factory safety and working conditions.

Islam spoke candidly about his disagreements with Akter. He said, “I can’t accept Kalpona’s view of the situation. I really think her position is terrible. She claims the government response has been  both slow and insincere but this is simply untrue. Of course, there have been significant challenges responding to serious problems, but the government’s initiatives have been impressive and motivated by a genuine desire for reform.”

In fact, Islam suggested that Kalpona’s perspective is not merely misguided but motivated by selfish interests. “The truth is the opposite of the picture Kalpona paints. We have done very much since Rana Plaza and many of the government reforms began even before that. Her interpretation is very unfair and self-serving. She wants to exploit the tragedy of Rana Plaza for her own interests and the interests of her organization. This is a kind of blackmail of the country.”

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The crux of Islam’s criticism of Akter’s view is that it oversimplifies a  torturously complex constellation of issues. “You must remember that there are many complex issues to carefully consider. There are many different interests to take into consider and so many competing parties. This is not an easy set of problems to solve and we don’t accomplish anything by pretending otherwise.”

These complications, according to Islam, should recommend some measure of patience regarding reform. “Especially because there are so many stakeholders, real, lasting reform takes time. You cannot reasonably expect that this can all be accomplished overnight. We must exercise patience and also acknowledge the real progress that has been made. I wish Americans could see Bangladesh for themselves, see what it is really like.”

Still, such patience is not always forthcoming–Bangladesh has been roiled by civil unrest, continuing to intensify even after the wage board issued its final recommendations. Islam hypothesized about why the conclusion of the minimum wage debate didn’t quell the violence in the streets. “Yes, there were riots even after the minimum wage was finally set. There are many reasons for this. Bangladesh has an exceptional culture which is very complex. Sometimes even minor accidents will lead to major effects. There is a lot of volatility that surrounds labor issues.”

And some of that popular anger was apparently stoked by a general distrust of the factory owners commitment to the new salary structure, especially since they procrastinated delivering their final seal of approval. “The factory owners did not agree to the new minimum wage right away and that lead to violence and vandalism. Prime Minister Hasina had to intervene and basically order them to accept the terms the wage board recommended. But many of the workers were slow to believe that the new salary structure would really be implemented.”

And many workers, despite the 77 percent increase in their wages, were still underwhelmed, frustrated that their expectations went unmet. Islam considers their frustration understandable but still fundamentally short-sighted. “Also, many of the workers were not satisfied with the wage that was finally determined. They wanted as much as 8,000 takas($103) but the board decided on 5,300 takes ($68). It is impossible in negotiations like these to please everyone equally. That is the nature of any compromise.”

And compromise is always an arrangement between a plurality of parties, each guided by their own set of specific interests. Since raising the minimum wage necessarily entails a proportionate increase in the costs of manufacturing, the demands of business can’t be easily dismissed. “The point of the compromise is to strike a delicate balance between multiple interests. We have to consider the demands of business too, what they can and cannot afford. And there is more to consider than just wages: factory conditions, infrastructure and energy are important issues as well.”

And contrary to Akter’s judgement that the Bangladesh government has often been an obstacle to progress, Islam defended its role as a steward of reform, as well as a champion of labor rights. “People need to understand that the government openly encourages labor rights and labor organization. We know that they need representation and we want them to have it. But they need to have more respect for the law and work within the bounds of it. There is a legal process in place and mechanisms for reform. They need to protect their own interests, of course, but they need to do it lawfully.”

Islam also bristled at the familiar criticism of the US-led Alliance, a consortium of retailers and brands convened to oversee and financially subsidize the rehabilitation of more than 500 factories in Bangladesh. Many have lambasted the Alliance as a weaker version of the European Union-led Accord, which covers more factories and includes legal mandates for all its participating members. “The criticisms of the Alliance are very unfair. They are, at least, trying to do something, to make things better. Of course, not everything they do is perfect these are such complex problems. It is obvious that they are doing their best. The criticisms simply go too far. Remember that the Alliance and the Accord cover fewer than 2,000 factories between the two of them. But there are 3,000 more! It is very hard to affect quick progress for millions of workers.”

And Islam also offered a spirited defense of Western retailers like Wal-Mart, often the object of unremitting criticism for what many see as lackluster efforts to overhaul Bangladesh’s dilapidated factories. Akter had plans on November 20th, the day after her speech at the Ford Foundation, to lead a protest in midtown Manhattan of Wal-Mart’s contributions to the cause. “I don’t think the protests against Wal-Mart are a good idea at all. Wal-Mart is trying to do the best they can, given their position in Bangladesh. They have been very generous, setting aside financing for loans for factory improvements, and they have conducted many inspections of their own factories. They are now publishing the results of their inspections. Protesting them ignores all the good efforts they are making. It does not accomplish anything.”

Islam continued, “They work very closely with the government, always explaining their activity to us. They have over 200 factories in Bangladesh. And their inspections have been very thorough and transparent, giving each factory a letter grade. And already many of those factories are making real progress, moving from grades of C and D to B and A.”

Still, Islam counseled that the government and the workers form a tighter partnership in the future, predicated upon their mutual objectives. “I think the missing link is closer cooperation with the workers. Especially the government must find new ways to partner with them. We have the same goal–to make Bangladesh stronger.”

Unmoved by the view that Bangladesh is incapable of reform, Islam ended on an optimistic note, highlighting the opportunities for the country on the horizon. “Right now, we have cheap labor to offer the world. Of course, in the long run you need more than this to remain competitive. China has a lot more than labor, too; it has a huge supply of resources as well. But Bangladesh has so much potential and we are always improving. The roads, the infrastructure, the deliverance of electricity are all getting better all the time.”