Ahsan H Mansur is the executive director of Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRIB) and chairman of BRAC Bank. The economy and public life have come to a standstill due to the lockdown imposed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. He speaks to Prothom Alo about ways to overcome the crisis.
How do you view the decision of reopening RMG factories amid the coronavirus outbreak?
Ahsan H Mansur: Most countries are reopening industries and factories and we have to do so too. But we have to consider what stage we are at now. We have not been able to tackle coronavirus properly. The number of cases and deaths is increasing.
In the readymade garment sector, China and Vietnam are our competitors and they have reopened their factories. We will get few orders from the buyers. This may be 20 per cent in the next two to three years. According to statistics, some 16 per cent orders have come in April and 20 per cent in May. These orders should not be missed in any way. If we miss these, we will not get these back. We need both money and employment for workers.
Do you think the factories should be reopened to retain the foreign market?
Ahsan H Mansur: The factories can be reopened on the basis of these orders. All the workers need not to be engaged. Those who live nearby can be called to reopen the factories. And the government’s health guidelines have to be followed. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has formulated a policy that contains everything.
Health guidelines have to be followed strictly. Many countries have done this. The workers will enter through one gate and exit through another. Their seating has to be arranged maintaining social distance. As all workers are not coming, it would not be difficult to maintain social distancing in their seating arrangement. I think a preparation of one week was needed to reopen factories. There will be a risk if factories are opened without any preparation.
Ahsan H Mansur: The government has industries and labour ministries. They will look after the legal aspects.
BGMEA will monitor whether their members are complying with the health guidelines. As the coronavirus is highly contagious, the RMG owners must give the matter due attention. Both owners and workers will be affected if coronavirus spreads in a factory.
All factories have not paid the workers as yet.
Ahsan H Mansur: That is unfortunate and an old problem. BGMEA said around 70 factories could not pay wages as of March. The problem is BGMEA is reluctant to take responsibility of the factories which are not its members.
It’s the same with BKMEA. In 2010 we made a proposal to create a fund, collecting ten paisa from every 100 taka in export revenue. The workers will be supported from the fund during crises. The government accepted the proposal but BGMEA did not.
Most of the RMG factories were laid off due to the lockdown. The workers will be affected.
Ahsan H Mansur: There is a dispute between principles and purpose. Owners reason that the production in the factories has been halted and so there is no alternative but to declare a lay-off. They have done so legally. But the problem is that the workers will be affected. The most important thing at this moment is to protect the economy. There is no alternative but to reopen the factories. A factory owner told me that on 14 April he paid Tk 45 million in wages for the workers for March. The factory is shut this month. He does not know how he will pay wages next month. The factory owners also said the media should report on the problems of owners as well as workers. Both the sides have to come to a consensus. Even if the owners close the factories after full payment, the workers will be affected.
Ahsan H Mansur: The government has not done a great deal for the poor. Allocation of Tk 7 billion is nothing. In 2019, the people below the poverty line were 20 per cent. In one month, the percentage has increased to 30. The number of these people will not be less than 50 million. Measures have to be taken for the survival of these people. The officials in the food ministry will be benefited if two million tonnes of rice were bought and sold at Tk 10 per kg. Pakistan is providing Tk 1200 to every poor family a month. We should give cash instead of food. Recipients would be asked to send a bank account or bKash number through SMS and cash will be sent to those bank accounts or bKash number. The government has to spend Tk 220-220 billion. If the food assistance was given, there would be corruption in collecting food, making a list of recipients and distribution. Non-government organisation BRAC is providing Tk 3000 to each family. The government assistance has to be kept above politics and corruption. People have to be protected first.
What is your opinion about the government steps to tackle the economic stagnancy?
Ahsan H Mansur: The government has taken realistic measures. But the problem is bureaucratic. The government has issued circulars without discussing with the stakeholders. So the business bodies raised objections. If the government sets too many conditions regarding stimulus packages, the main objective may be lost. The assistance has to be pro-recipient. The government has said that it would give Tk 200 billion in the SME sector. But this sector is very big. The employment of a huge number of people is involved. So the amount of stimulus has to be raised. The same goes for small traders. A total of Tk 30 billion has been allocated. Allocation has to be raised for both the sector if the government wants to boost the economy.
Ahsan H Mansur: Our health system is vulnerable and that has been proved again due to the coronavirus outbreak. Everything including infrastructure, equipment and human resources is in a bad shape. We have a crisis of skilled physicians. The government could request for 100 physicians and nurses to go to China. They could train our physicians and nurses. In other countries, we see physicians and nurses going to the patients. But physicians in our country are afraid to go to the patients. We cannot blame them. The Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) could not ensure PPE for them.
Ahsan H Mansur: Thank you too.
- This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.