An In­dus­try Crawls Back

Bangladesh’s ap­parel ex­ports ex­ceed $20 bil­lion and, ac­cord­ing to pre­dic­tions, would triple by De­cem­ber 2020, de­spite the var­i­ous road­blocks.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Ma­jyd Aziz The writer is a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Karachi Cham­ber of Com­merce and In­dus­try.

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.”

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