Rubana Huq on RMG Industry & Women Empowerment

Rubana Huq, a successful Bangladeshi businesswoman with a splendid taste for poetry, is the Managing Director of Mohammadi Group. She has recently been elected as the first ever female President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
Starting with exporting readymade garments, her group diversified its business into software, digital distribution, real estate, power generation and entertainment.

Photo: Collected

Rubana wrote a book of poems named “Time of My Life” for which she won the SAARC Literary Award in 2006. She was chosen as one of the 100 women by BBC for the years 2013 and 2014, and is also Chair of the Annisul Huq Foundation. She also served as the CEO of TV Southasia from 2006 to 2010.
Rubana has pursued her PhD from Jadavpur University in 2018. Moreover, she is a member of the board of trustees in Asian University for Women.
A mother, writer, philanthropist and an entrepreneur – Rubana Huq holds the excellence in maintaining myriad identities. In regard to her recent attainment of being elected as the President of BGMEA, Rubana sat for an exclusive interview with Bangladesh Brand Forum’s Managing Editor Raiyan Rumman. In the following excerpts from the conversation , we will learn about Rubana’s plan for the RMG industry, her thoughts on women empowerment and much more.

Bangladesh Brand Forum: Congratulations on becoming the first female president of BGMEA. How does it feel?
Rubana Huq: I am more excited for the challenges that will come our way. Standing for women in this country was more important for me. A sector that has 80% contribution from women, has literally no representation in the trade body. Hence, for me, the victory has been symbolic.

In Bangladesh’s present economic model what shifts are needed to make it a journey of inclusive progress?
I think the general intention for inclusiveness exists. However, it’s not only about inclusive economy, but it’s also about inclusiveness of gender and every moral & social issue of the country. There is a thriving middle class in Bangladesh. We have a lot of people graduating from absolute disadvantageous positions – from grassroots levels to the next levels. The journey of this graduation is by default Bangladesh’s storyline. The current government, by principal and policy, has decided that it is going to be an inclusive economy. I think, however, we probably need to change our economic model a bit to tune ourselves into becoming a society with more empathy. We need to ensure more access to credit for women. Economic empowerment of females is a key issue for inclusiveness.
Besides, with the dangers of automation, rescaling is required if you want it to be an inclusive economy. A full stretch on education and curriculum has to be given. Focusing on technology, we need to move on to intermediate production. Therefore, it is imperative to train our workers. The curriculum should focus more on technology; through which we can link innovation to industry. Our industries require intelligent interventions. To implement those, we need a policy map and a vision. With all these, we can rescale our workers.

What implication and opportunity do you foresee as we delve deeper into 4th IR as an economy?
The 4th IR is a complicated concept for Bangladesh at this time. We can’t expect these millions of workers to become overnight coders. How we can go there, is a critical issue. We don’t know yet how to educate them. There’s going to be a time when robots will make robots. The revolutions are already happening and it is below the general radar. The challenge is that we are not panicking enough. We have already seen factories going for automation. Maybe the number is not that big as of yet, but within a while, this displacement of workers will have a huge social impact. These workers were enjoying freedom like never before and they were not trained to do anything else. So, the challenges lie in vision, education, skills and mindsets.
The opportunity lies in our young demographic dividend, innovation capacity of those youth and utilization of the undiscovered potential of women. Our workers have already been sending their children to schools. We are breeding a generation of literate kids. So, the hope lies in those young minds. The opportunities will depend on our effort to train those youths.

The apparel sector has played a key role in Bangladesh’s economic rise and also impacted significantly in the social development, particularly for women development. What role do you anticipate this sector to play in the medium and long term?
We have made huge progress and spent enormously in this sector, so, I don’t think there is any way to regress. We will have to just go forward. The future will be about value addition for this sector.
The challenge would be fast fashion, which the world is heading for. We may not be able to handle that very well. Even if we handle the R&D well, we may suffer because of infrastructural issues. Sending a truck to the port takes almost half a day now. In Taiwan, they clear goods from the port in less than seven hours. Port efficiency and faster mode of transportation will be key for Bangladesh. Readiness to support this sector is going to be a crucial issue. We need to push this sector to the next level because we don’t have anything else yet – we have not diversified enough.
Most of us have set up hundreds of production lines. As a result, when the orders come in, we are competing against one another; hence, we are undercutting one another and the price levels keep dipping. If we want to stop this, then we have to be more mindful of what we are producing. Ultimately, consumer needs are changing. They want variation, value addition and of course fashion. However, they don’t go on a buying spree, rather they have specific needs; they want their products customized. Minimalism is coming back, but with fashion. Our grand production lines are not geared up to cater to that. So, production lines need to be broken down to smaller production units so that custom-made goods can be produced.
Moreover, the discourse about Bangladeshi RMG has to be changed; Bangladesh just can’t be labelled a cheap alternative, we have to be competitive. The narrative must change.

In your opinion what are the key building blocks for the sector to pursue that vision? Where do you see the biggest gap?
There are six key building blocks that we must concentrate on. First one is branding; you know there’s an image deficit which needs to be eliminated quickly. We will have to change the labor narratives. The second one would be price. We have to be great negotiators. 80% of Bangladesh’s businesses are done through middlemen, which is very unfair. Why can’t we interact with the buyer without any intermediaries? Why is that language missing? I think this is related to education; we don’t have the skills to address people. Number three would be to make the workers understand about skill-wage grid. If you are skilled, then you get paid more. Fourth would be to tap into new markets. There are countries, such as Brazil and Russia, with huge import taxes. These tax barriers can be solved by addressing bilaterals. We need excellent economic diplomacy. Perfect coordination of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Labor, need to exist. Fifth is policy; we need to set some standards in order to make policies. There’s no exit policy for our manufacturers; they end up declaring themselves bankrupts. We must provide an exit route for those who don’t want to be in this business anymore.
Suitability is the sixth building block. We need to up our level of self-monitoring. We also need to make sure that everybody understands our language. If we have spent so much on our factories’ safety, we need to make sure that we are conveying the message correctly. Much is lost in translation. Sustainability is not only about preserving our valuables, it’s also about moral sustainability – our relationship with the worker – emphasizing more on empathy. Related to sustainability, another building block is ‘Innovation to Industry’ or ‘I2I’. Manufacturers must put their best focus on innovation.

Women make up 80% of the sector’s workforce, yet female presence is abysmally low in leadership positions both at factory and management levels. Is it due to the trade’s features or has there been a missed opportunity for us in that space?
I don’t think we have missed an opportunity here, it’s the trade’s feature because it’s low-end manufacturing. You don’t need a lot of educated people. But, now comes the challenge because a majority of them have obtained at least high school degrees. Earlier we had a lower level of literacy among the workforce, that’s why it was not possible to put them into managerial positions. For supervisor positions, it’s not rocket science; so, that can eventually be pushed up. But, those are a handful. Where do the workers go from here?
Mohammadi Group started a scheme, which was followed by nine other factories, where we send our women workers to Asian University of Women for studying. The university designed a two-year access course. A team of 15 Harvard alumnus came to our factories and assessed a test through which the potential candidates would be selected. Among the current 600 students of AUW, 150 are garments workers and the first batch graduates next year. I can’t express how eagerly I am waiting for that moment. For me, this is inclusiveness. So, I would say initiatives are being taken and there should be more. We need more disruptive ideas like this. I personally want to be one of the disruptors and make sure that I am spreading the same message of inclusiveness.
As a nation as we strive to progress in an equitable manner, what are the future skills and values our next generation should possess?
Estonia is such a small country, but it progressed remarkably. It happened because they have changed the curriculum. Their kids start coding and math from first grade. Therefore, we have to be radical. We have to incorporate technology in every aspect of our curriculum. More vocational training should be given to the youth as well. Let me tell you a story of a young man whom I met through a competition event. I was a judge of the competition and the man was one of the finalists. He made an electronic item called ‘refrioven’ – a fridge and an oven together. His team won the competition and received the prize money. After several weeks, he called me and said that he finished his course from the polytechnic institute and he didn’t know where to go because he couldn’t find a job. He asked me to give him any job at my factory. So, I eventually got him a job at a Television channel as the chief electrician. The reason I am telling the story – imagine a guy with the mind of an innovator, is now rotting away being an electrician. I failed there because I could not scale him up. So, the concept should be to scale up these minds. There comes the need of mentoring and grooming.
Our youths are far smarter than we ever were. We just need the right formula to utilize them. Our business houses must give opportunities to new ideas, new innovation, have founders’ clubs, inject a lot of capital and set them free.

How do we create the ground across the country so that those skills are nurtured and groomed?
I think we all need to align our aspirations, dreams and visions. We need to think big and start small. Like I said, I have invited innovators to visit my factories. That’s just a pilot, but it has to be replicable and scalable. As long as we all individually give access to innovation and interventions in our small units and as long as they are replicable – it can spread like wildfire and we can immediately standardize it. Ideating is the challenge. Very often we are concentrating on immediacy and not importance. A vision has to be set right.

In one of your recent columns, you wrote about national credit portal for women. There are NGOs that have been working on micro-credit for women for decades. Why do you think a national portal is needed?
The NGOs are doing it in their own way and there’s no visibility. Since we are attempting to be a digital Bangladesh, the needs of women should be made digitally visible. If somebody is applying for a loan in an Upazilla, that needs to be recorded. A national credit portal will allow us to asses why we are not being able to give enough credit to women, where they are lacking.
So, it’s not just about one NGO giving the credit; it’s about the entire country focusing on the disbursement of credit. The Government, if I am not mistaken, has allocated Tk. 100 crores for women entrepreneurship fund. The question is how it’s being utilized. We want visibility of that. We want to know if the women are actually availing it. There are at least 426 Upazillas where twenty thousand women are being taught to be self-reliant, at least 489 Upazillas where 5000+ centers are teaching to be aware about violence against women. Everything is there, we are just not being able to connect the dots. Hence, a digital platform is needed to connect the dots. That’s why, I think, a national credit portal is required.

You also wrote about sharing the stories of successful women. Apart from how some platforms are already doing it, what else could be done?
Whenever International Women’s Day comes, there is this unjustifiable attention pouring on us, women like me. I think it has become embarrassing now. The same old faces that are being called. We are not heroes anymore. Maybe we were once, but not anymore. On the other hand, there’s a whole generation of struggling women in this country, whose tales must be told. It’s important to bring those unsung women into the frontline. Their stories must be made nationally viral. Then, these women will be incentivized easily. Publicity and branding automatically help the beneficiary to be more proactive. When you incentivize a women and share their stories, you help her go to the next level.

In the age of technology, it is referred that focusing on the liberal subjects could actually be a key differentiator. Do you agree with that?
I do. Asian University of Women has a subject called PPE – Politics, Philosophy and Economics. I think subjects like these would help. Subject on ethics would help. I think the curriculum should be flexible. Also, I believe Math and Coding could be taught to children from grade 1. They do the same in Estonia.
How can we increase broader awareness, particularly within mothers, as they make the key decisions – on why liberal subjects are key, why females should pursue STEM if they want, why a youth should define his/her own path? How do we make that shift?
A national awareness drive has to start. We need to redefine education. Whom do we call educated? Just because you have a degree doesn’t make you more educated than the girl who served you breakfast. Maybe her level of empathy is much more than you. Our country needs to get used to new definitions, because it’s going to be a new tomorrow. Bangladesh will be sprinting towards a new era of development. We can’t afford to not have a flexible narrative. So, again it’s important to set a national vision for redefining education, wealth and skills.

If you are to give one message to future youth, what would that be?
Be restless. Restlessness creates an urgency that helps you go to the next level. If you are restless, you are always ready to fight on.
So, be restless to go to the next level, be restless to read the next book, be restless to innovate a new idea, be restless to help the next person. Be restless to become a new you. Never be satisfied and complicit.

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