An Industry Crawls Back
Bangladesh’s apparel exports exceed $20 billion and, according to predictions, would triple by December 2020, despite the various roadblocks.
Four million workers in Bangladesh toil day and night to clothe the western world.
Now won't you give some bread to get the starving fed? We've got to relieve Bangladesh. Relieve the people of Bangladesh. We've got to relieve Bangladesh.” On August 01, 1971, ex-Beatle George Harrison along with the late sitar maestro Ravi Shankar organized two concerts for Bangladesh at the Madison Square Garden in New York City where Harrison sang for the first time his hymn titled Bangladesh. This lamentation galvanized the world and Bangladesh became a country that needed to be saved from an impending disaster. A bloody civil war, the rise of a secessionist movement, the clarion call for Bengali nationalism, whispers of conspiracies and plots, the rejection of the people’s mandate, and the emergence of a strong leader culminated in the birth of Bangladesh on December 17, 1971.
Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State, presided over a high-level meeting in early December 1971 in the State Department to discuss the situation in the then East Pakistan. There were growing concerns about the possibility of a famine-like situation. It was in this meeting that Ural Alexis Johnson, a Foreign Service official, made the infamous comment that the new nation would be an “international basket case”, a quote that has been wrongly attributed to Kissinger.
This stirring background forms the basis for the narrative of how a nation that chronically suffers from natural disasters such as cyclones, that has a huge populace living in abject poverty, that faced famine and hunger, that is enmeshed in political turmoil and instability, that suffered military coups, tolerates unrestrained corruption and copes with unrest among the people, surmounts all these negativities to emerge as a relatively successful nation by becoming the premier clothier to the world. Its apparel exports are in excess of $20 billion and experts predict that Bangladesh, despite various roadblocks, would triple its exports figures by December 2020.
There must be some critical mass that has brought about this spectacular transformation from what Kissinger acerbically stated more than three decades ago that “Bangladesh is a bottomless basket” to the enviable position that Dhaka today enjoys in the global textile marketplace. Bangladeshi garment manufacturers were and are routinely chided for blatant employment of child labor, blamed for paying pathetically low wages and violating human rights and labor standards and are accused of shamelessly disregarding workplace safety and health measures.
Bangladesh’s apparel manufacturers also suffer the ignominy of being callous with the lives of workers. In the last seven or eight years, more than 2200 workers have died in fire-related incidents in the garment industry. The eight-storey Rana Plaza, where factories had employed a large number of workers, collapsed on April 24, 2013, resulting in the death of 1126 workers. Despite global condemnation from buyers, consumers and social activists, despite calls for boycott of Bangladeshi products and despite vociferous demands for new safety standards, the fact remains that the importance of apparel from Bangladesh has still not diminished.
Garment tycoons are active in national politics and have a strong voice and influence in major political parties. This is a prime reason why Bangladesh’s garment industry has managed to keep wages low, has a lax attitude in assuring a decent workplace environment and has been successful in thwarting all efforts to introduce legislation that would have a negative impact on the industry. What is more astonishing is that major apparel importers and brands also neglect to take into account the gross violations and disregard of human rights.
The carefully planned strategy of Bangladeshi entrepreneurs since the last three decades or more has resulted in an inclusive growth in many sectors. The game plan was to take advantage of the prevailing universal sympathy for Bangladesh, especially in Europe and the United States, and set up a labor-intensive industrial sector that provided immediate employment to the marginalized women and, in the beginning, even children. Today, four million workers toil day and night to clothe the western world. Almost 80 percent of garment workers are women and five million slum dwellers of Dhaka are a ready supply of labor willing to stitch, sew and cut for a
meager wage. Factors Such as allure of cheap labor, protection of the industry by the state and the obvious vulnerabilities of new entrepreneurs, have enabled major global brands and chains of stores to make Bangladesh their preferred choice. Moreover, the special consideration given to Bangladesh in the form of dutyfree access by Europe and the U.S. has propelled the industry to grow exponentially.
The apparel sector is the mainstay of the export regime and everyone in the country has adopted the industry as their own. Political parties, labor federations, business organizations, media and policymakers, all have endeavored to protect, promote, and project the country’s garment industry. This has worked superbly for the manufacturers and they have become a strong and potent force, even often dictating national policy. Profits have been fabulously high and more than 5000 units have been set up in cities, towns and even in agriculture fields. The quality of apparel has been maintained at world-class standards and lucrative linkages have been established globally. The unwritten rule accepted by all is that export transports would not be blocked and protests and strikes would not affect production schedules or deliveries. This kind of national ownership has made the difference between Bangladesh and many regional apparel-supplying countries.
In fact, a time comes when activism shakes up the status quo. This happened after the Rana Plaza tragedy. The workers became violently agitated and demanded raise in basic emoluments from the despicably low $40 a month to more than $100. Internationally, the major brands and department stores also faced a backlash from their customers and this compelled them to prescribe safety codes and measures for factories. The downside has been further compounded by a steep decline in profit margins. Although demand for Bangladeshi products is remarkably rising, essentially due to shifting of American and European orders from China, the price of the average garment has fallen by 12 to fifteen percent in the past few years.
A message that South Asian exporters, especially those from Pakistan, must comprehend is that Bangladesh would be distinctly preferred over other countries. They should, therefore, endeavor to convince their people that success lies in national ownership of strategic assets, be they in the nuclear, historical, or private sectors. In the words of American spiritualist Dr Orison Swett Marden, “No employer today is independent of those about him. He cannot succeed alone, no matter how great his ability or capital. Business today is more than ever a question of cooperation.”