The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association has been at the forefront of all bargaining over the last 15 months, negotiating with the government, with workers, with international bodies such as the International Labor Organization and with global retailers as the nation’s apparel industry rushes to improve worker safety standards and working conditions.

Here, BGMEA vice president Mohammad Shahidullah Azim talks about the challenges.

WWD: How do you see BGMEA and individual employers facing the challenges in the industry in 2014?

Mohammad Shahidullah Azim: We have faced problems one after the other, but we are not frustrated. It is a big challenge and we have shown that we are up to the task and plan to live up to it further.
What we want is that buyers should not pull out from our country. Eighty percent of our workers are women and if the buyers take their business elsewhere, many of these women workers will have to go back to a world of poverty. We would like international retailers and buyers to come forward as our partners.

Although people are talking about justice, they’re also saying it is very unusual for an employer to be arrested, as was the case with the arrests in the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. fire on Dec. 31.

M.S.A.: It’s not necessarily true because after the collapse of Rana Plaza the owners of the factories in the building have been behind bars, as is also the owner of the building.

WWD: How do you see the investigation and compensation for Tazreen really being completed? Do you see an early resolution to this case?

M.S.A.: We had our own investigation committee after the fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. and gave in our report earlier. It was found that the B-level management was at fault and consequently a supervisor was put behind bars. Now the police charge sheet has also said that the chairman of the company and the owner are also liable. It is a sub judis matter and will take its course.

Many business owners have said that politics is destroying the business. How is BGMEA helping in this situation?

The political situation is causing a lot of damage. If the political situation is channeled, our growth could be substantially higher.

The fire at Standard factory in December was indicative of how politics and the related violence that is happening is harming the business. It put more than 18,000 workers out of a job when the factory burnt down. We don’t want to see incidents like these repeated. We are also concerned about the workers whose livelihood depends on business being conducted in a proper manner.

Factory owners and workers have come together to protest and try to hold things together but it is hard to say how things will turn out. Things may happen in a good way. We are hoping that they will.

WWD: How are employers reacting to the recent legislation allowing trade unions?

M.S.A.: We always welcome programs that help people understand what needs to be done. But trade union leaders too need to have a sense of accountability. There are so many different kinds of trade union leaders — some are from within the industry and understand the problems. On the opposite end of the spectrum there are also people who are without jobs and pose as trade union leaders to instigate workers; some are collective bargaining agents. Earlier, we have had labor arbitration to address issues that workers don’t feel are being handled fairly and then the BGMEA leader called the workers union leader to have the complaint addressed in an acceptable way.

WWD: There have been complaints about the fact that compensation has not yet been completed for workers after the fire at Tazreen and Rana Plaza.

M.S.A.: I don’t think that is the case. For Tazreen, everyone has been paid already and all those who were identified on the basis of the DNA testing have already been compensated. The compensation also involved procedures to check the identity of those who came forward to claim the money — many more people than the number of the dead came forward and these had to be checked properly. Compensation is still being done in some areas as well. In December, a $40 million fund for the compensation has been set up and we are looking at the best ways forward.

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