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Bangladesh - November 23, 2023

Clothing industry in trap of politics

Mahfuz Emran: BNP-Jamaat and like-minded parties carried out strict programs like hartal-blockade for 14 days in 8 phases from October 29 to November 22. Although there was no strong picketing on the streets by the anti-government political parties, long-distance traffic was completely stopped due to a large number of vehicles being set on fire and vandalized during the agitation program. As a result, out of those 23 days, only 9 days inter-district goods were transported at normal speed. As a result, the garment traders could not send their ready-made garments to the port as per the schedule. Due to the strike and blockade, the raw materials imported from abroad could not be brought from the port to the factory on time.
Garment owners said that in the last three weeks, the export schedule of their ready-made garments has been completely messed up. Many of them had to ‘air freight’ the manufactured goods at double cost due to not being able to ship on time. The ‘production schedule’ has collapsed as the raw material brought from abroad for garments could not reach the factory on time. There is a fear of canceling the order of the products made by some garment owners.
People associated with the ready-made garment industry said that production activities have already been severely hampered due to the workers’ agitation for several weeks over wages. The ongoing political movement on this has become a ‘blow to the wall’.
Leaders of the garment industry owners’ organization BGMEA alleged that workers’ dissatisfaction with wages and incitement by anti-government political parties were behind the agitation. Due to this, even after determining the appropriate wages for the workers, efforts have been made to create chaos. Many are still trying to muddy the waters with this.
Meanwhile, due to the conflicting positions of the ruling Awami League and the opposition political parties around the upcoming 12th National Parliament elections, there is doubt whether the transport system will be normal before the middle of January next year. Garment owners said that if the transportation of imported and exported goods is not kept out of the scope of the strike called by the opposition political parties, their business will collapse. Which will have a serious negative impact on the current fragile economic structure of the country.
On the other hand, as the ruling government is proceeding towards holding the elections according to the constitution, ignoring the continuous pressure of several countries including the United States for fair, impartial and participatory elections, the concerned parties are afraid that the major impact of visa policy and commercial restrictions may also be felt in the garment sector. Especially the entrepreneurs of large companies that export to the US market are in extreme fear about this.
The leader of one such organization told in this context that the policy behind the directives issued by US President Joe Biden to impose punitive measures including trade bans, visa restrictions against “labour rights violators” is basically politics. Before announcing the election schedule, the US is using the tool of ‘protecting labor rights’ by not complying with their ‘prescription’ for dialogue with the opposition political parties, including the BNP, and holding fair, impartial and participatory polls. The industrialist said that this superpower country has used the same strategy on different countries before.
According to him, there is no reason to fear Bangladesh in terms of labor rights. But the political context has many reasons to be alarmed. It is difficult to predict the intentions or actions of any country or individual. Considering the context of geopolitical and internal politics, Bangladesh is now in tension with the United States. Based on this, the United States can impose sanctions using any type of tool. They are afraid of this.
Garment industry entrepreneurs say they have invested huge sums of money to improve working conditions and worker safety based on the recommendations of the Accord and Alliance, a coalition of Western buyers and trade unions. In the meantime, the latest announcement by the US has spread anxiety among them. Because not all factories are the same. Among these, if any action is taken on the entire garment sector by exploiting the situation of a few factories, there will be a major disaster.
According to the data of the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) under the US Department of Commerce, in 2022, the United States imported $9,993,225,000 worth of clothing from the world market. Among them, clothes worth $974.62 crore have been imported from Bangladesh. As such, Bangladesh provides 9.7 percent of the total clothing imported by the United States.
Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) Executive President Mohammad Hatem said that politics is behind the directives recently issued by the United States on labor rights. They are trying to use the political purpose in different ways. Some people named as labor leaders are hatching various conspiracies to disrupt the garment sector.
He also said that there is a slight weakness in the garment sector of Bangladesh on the issue of labor rights, such weakness exists in China, Vietnam, and India in every country. But now if someone or a country does something purposefully, that is a different matter.
AK Azad, Managing Director of Ha-Meem Group, a leading exporter of ready-made garments, said in this context, garment industry owners are very worried about the new policy of the United States. From what has been understood so far, it seems that there is scope for imposing this policy at the individual level as well as at the state level. Therefore, it is important to look at the issue diplomatically very seriously now.
The United States has long been the country’s largest apparel export market as a single country. According to the statistics of the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) under the Ministry of Commerce, Bangladesh exported $4,570.91 crore worth of garments to the world market in 2022. Out of this, $905.99 crore worth of clothes were exported to the United States. According to this, almost 20 percent of the total garment export has been in the United States.
Meanwhile, the country’s garment owners claim political links behind the recent directives of the US on labor rights, but labor leaders say otherwise. According to them, the garment owners are basically trying to get unethical benefits from the government by expressing concern about this. They need to be concerned with how the new law will improve the labor rights of their factory workers. They need to be proactive about how quickly labor rights can be delivered to factories.
People working on labor rights say that despite what the government or garment owners say, workers have the right to speak up in the country, labor conditions have improved – but the reality is quite different. And when there are weaknesses in the working environment and labor rights in a country, there is an opportunity for outsiders to come and speak. Therefore, to avoid such a situation, it is important to eliminate our own weaknesses. But the garment owners of the country are trying to profit by putting this issue on the shoulders of politics without paying attention to it.
Research Director of CPD, Dr. Golam Moazzem said, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has rejected the wage announced for the workers at present. The European Union has objected. So, the salary of the workers needs to be reconsidered. He also said that many workers have been killed in various workers’ movements recently. Many people have been sued. The families of the victims should be compensated and the workers released from the lawsuit. It will make one thing clear that work is being done for the welfare of workers. If these issues are taken lightly, the new US law could spell trouble for the export sector.
However, this researcher is optimistic that the new law of the United States will not cause any problems if the initiative taken by the Ministry of Labor to create an action plan regarding the working environment, job and quality of life of workers.
However, many political analysts have disagreed on this. They feel that government policymakers have ignored the United States on election issues, and their strategic pressure will continue regardless of how the labor situation in the country improves. They also expressed fear that there may be a severe recession in the garment industry by falling into this trap of politics.

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