Industrial strife affects us all

Mostafiz Uddin

By guest author Mostafiz Uddin, the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). Email:

In recent months, we’ve seen more negative press in international newspapers and journals about the apparel industry of Bangladesh. Particularly, news has focused on clashes between factory owners and workers, wildcat strikes and complaints about charges brought against some workers by factories last year. Most of these charges, I understand, have now been dropped. Nonetheless, the damage is already done in the sense that the reputation of our industry has once again been tarnished. 

I don’t wish to take sides here. There are two sides to every story and, in a situation like this, things are never black and white. What I will say, however, is that discontentment in one small part of the workforce in relation to just a handful of factories can cause reputational damage for the whole industry. These problems have a ripple effect.

How much money does this reputational damage cost our industry each year due to the kind of issues highlighted above? How much is the cost in terms of negative PR? How many brands will look at the situation here and consider taking their business elsewhere because they do not wish to be associated with any further negative publicity?

We cannot continue to ignore these issues. Smooth, harmonious industrial relations are important to any industry; a happy, satisfied workforce is a productive workforce. Moreover, how many garments are being made when workers are out on the streets protesting and complaining? Can our industry afford this continued downtime?

The starting point for me here is that it is in all our interests—workers, managers, factory owners—to improve the situation.

Communication among all parties is surely key. Across the industry, I believe it is only right that workers have a forum to express their grievances, and formal worker representation is the bedrock of properly functioning industrial relations. An intermediate approach, with a workers’ participation committee being selected through proper elections, has worked well within the EPZs and there is no reason why this could not be effective right across our apparel industry.

As well as the need for more formal, organised industrial relations, I believe many factories are missing a trick with regard to employee relations. There are countless gestures that owners can do which have a profound impact on employees, their motivation, their productivity and, consequently, profits.

Workers often strike about pay. This is well-known. We also know that some workers are not happy with the current minimum wage. However, I believe workers are far less likely to strike about pay if they are happy with other aspects of their work and feel like a valued member of the business. Often, complaints about pay mask discontent elsewhere.

There is a wealth of literature available which shows that just small gestures from senior management such as providing a water cooler, walking around the factory floor, and talking with workers can have a major impact on the workers.

How many factory owners visit the shop floor? Moreover, how many owners congratulate their workforce on a job well done or for completing a particular order on time? How many owners discuss successful contract wins with all their team? How many make them feel included in their success, and encourage them to celebrate for a successful task? How many hold team-bonding days to foster good teamwork and improve staff morale and confidence?

There are other small gestures that owners and top management can undertake. There is research to show that employees feel more motivated when they understand the bigger picture at the business. They want to know what is going on so that they have an idea of what they are collectively working towards and how their own individual endeavours fit into the bigger picture.

Research also shows the importance of transparency within businesses. Employees, we are so often told, are an organisation’s most important asset. So why are we not more open with them? Why do more owners and managers not make them feel important—feel valued for what they do? Why are they so often kept in the dark and the last to hear about what is going on in the business?

I am not advocating sharing every company secret, but surely an open culture which fosters inclusiveness is a healthy way to run a business. And, remember, there is no “I” in a team. There is also research that shows the value of owners and senior management recognising individual achievements by offering small, regular rewards to employees. These things make a difference.

To summarise, while disagreements often centre on pay, there are plenty of other issues that bosses can work on to improve morale, foster good employee-factory relations and develop a more engaged workforce which is less likely to strike or take other industrial action at the first opportunity.

This feature was first published on the Daily Start News and at Linkedin.