A few minutes before 8:30 a.m, just after the morning rush of workers making their way to their workstations, a calm descends at the 4A Yarn Dyeing factory in Savar, the Dhaka suburb where many Bangladeshi apparel and textile factories are located.
Some verses of the Koran are recited, then the national anthem plays as management and workers alike stand, hands on hearts.
“It gives a sense of national pride and togetherness and some time at the workstation before the workday really begins,” Abdullah Hil Rakib, owner and managing director of the factory, told Sourcing Journal.
As he arrived, Rakib took a moment to greet the workers and joined the national anthem himself, before a town hall where workers from different areas come to share their thoughts and grievances.
The focus at the plant has turned to 2022, with workwear, rainwear and technical garments the key products.
As the year rounds the corner, the global calendar is omnipresent: the Chinese New Year and holidays in February means all supplies from China need to be in house; production for the majority of the European brands and retailers is already on plan for the next season.
“For Covid-19 we were initially frozen, factories shut down, customers canceled, everybody was panicked. Within this year, everyone realized they had to live with this. In 2022, they are trying to refill their capacities so pressure is more and the cost of production is up,” he said.
This location covers 450,000 square feet, with a new seven-story factory opened last December. The main factory itself debuted in 2009, and although its name still keeps the yarn dyeing title, the facility now produces more than six million garment pieces a year for brands like CK, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, New Yorker, Costco Wholesale, Didriksons 1913, Intersport, H&M, Matalan, Craghoppers and Mango.
During a year disrupted by Covid, the company has also focused on leveraging technology to enhance its global reach.
“Technology that is also focused on increasing productivity to help monitor industrial systems…will be completed through the factory by early next year,” said Rakib, who is clearly pleased with the changes. “It is not only a way of gauging productivity, but also a way of rewarding those who are doing better, usually a supervisor or a manager was required to check, and it could have a human bias for or against a worker. Now the machine itself helps them understand their targets and how to achieve them better.”
“From a human resource perspective, it helps to see what a person can do, and who is not doing their job; from the industrial engineers perspective it helps to know where the system is unbalanced, where the machine layout can be improved,” he added.
Yet, in a country where jobs are sorely in need, is more automation the best path forward for Bangladesh?
“The way I see it if you can use the technology, you grow your capacity, not reduce the number of people working there. We are targeting garment exports of $50 billion by 2025—to achieve this we have to grow our capacity. If we can produce two million pieces at this time, then the same factory, with the same machines can produce three million if we manage our productivity better,” he said.
Lucky Akhtar, who works on the factory floor as a senior sewing operator, said she isn’t mad at or frustrated with these changing systems and machines. “I don’t have the urge to fight with them,” she said. “But there are times when the Wifi is down and then the machine doesn’t count the work that I have done.”
Overall, though, she said the change in technology that she has begin using at home—she has a Samsung smartphone, uses Facebook and checks her salary deposits online—has already carried her further than the 400 miles she traveled from the provinces to Dhaka for this job and she is ready to integrate it into her work life.
Line managers at the factory are also taking in these changes with interest. Productivity has been an enduring problem in many countries, and a concern in Bangladesh as well.
According to the Asian Productivity Organisation data for 2019, the hourly productivity of Bangladesh was valued at $3.40, compared to $11.1o in China, $15.90 in Sri Lanka and $12.30 in Indonesia.
While Rakib said that those calculations were based on incorrect information, it is hard to argue that several other countries achieve higher productivity.
Working toward that end, the Bangladesh government has set a target of increasing productivity per work hour by 5.6 percent on average per year between 2021 and 2030.
While productivity and technology are factors, Rakib said that he is mindful of the many other things that constitute the factory floor. “It is important to keep worker happiness in mind,” he said, joining them for lunch at the factory with dal (lentils), fish, vegetables and the staple of rice.
Rakib is also director of BGMEA’s new R&D and Innovation Centre opening in February. The center plans to enhance industry best practices through training, workshops and knowledge of industrial relations, business ethics and practices, and related topics.
“It was an awakening over the last few years for many factories, and many of us have moved to more innovative processes for safety as well as for production. Digitization is important, but the most important thing for innovation is to keep an agile attitude,” he said.
Keeping this attitude alive takes the innovation concept to different human levels: time management, and sometimes as he noted, work-life balance.
“Time management may well require the greatest innovations,” he said, noting the travel required to manage the more than $200 million in turnover for the group’s manufacturing segment. “This includes complaints from my daughter about not spending enough time at home.”