A STITCH IN TIME… Bangladesh
textile firms left in lurch
THE SEATTLE TIMES NEWS FRIDAY, MAY 9, 2003
UNDER U.S. INSISTENCE, one of the world's poorest nations got its
underaged workers out of the factories and into schools. Now
Bangladesh's apparel industry, which employs 1.5 million of the
country's 133 million people, is in trouble: Exports have been eroded
by the global economic downturn, the rise of China as a garment
manufacturer and, most stingingly, changing U, S. trade policies.
Los Angeles Times
DHAKA, Bangladesh - Three
years ago, when Salma was 11, she worked in a Dhaka factory, from 8
a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week. She was a runner, trimming thread and
shuttling bundles of sewn cloth. She made $9 a month.
Today, the soft-spoken teenager is learning to read and write.
Her parents are unhappy that she isn't bringing home wages, but they
let her attend school because her teacher promised to help her find
work soon that pays more than she earned at the factory.
"I hope to get a job making televisions," said Salma, sitting on
the floor of a tidy, one-room schoolhouse where she and her classmates,
a swarm of colorful saris and T-shirts, attended to their math
Salma's climb from child la laborer to dutiful student is a
tribute to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers &
Exporters Association, which pledged eight years ago to remove children
younger than 14 from factory floors.
Under the association's program, designed in 1995 at the urging
of the United States, the apparel industry has all but wiped out child
labor. What's more, garment makers have sent nearly 10,000 children who
once toiled in their factories to school, a considerable accomplishment
in a country in which 35 percent don't make it past primary grades.
But to many people here, the program doesn't feel like much of a
Although the garment industry satisfied U.S. demands for reform,
the United States is buying fewer Clothes from Bangladesh, which
depends on apparel exports for three-fourths of its vital foreign
What's more, the Bush administration this year added the
predominantly Muslim country to its list of 34 nations whose citizens
must navigate a rigorous visa-application process in a program aimed,
at combating terrorism. That makes it difficult for businesspeople to
visit customers and attend trade shows in the United States, the
second-biggest buyer of Bangladeshi apparel after the European Union.
Politicians and businesspeople in the South Asian nation are
bewildered - or suspect the worst: that the U.S. foreign-policy
establishment, focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, simply has
forgotten about them.
"On child labor, Bangladesh responded in a major way, it was not
window dressing said Zuilfiquar Rahman, managing director of Greenland
Garments Ltd., which recently invested $1.4 million in a factory that
produces clothing for several large European companies.
"In this case, we did get off our backsides and made things
work, and I do not think it has been reciprocated."
Bangladesh, a small country on the Bay of Bengal, one of the
most densely- populated regions in the world, has been prone to
disasters and always desperately poor with 34 percent of its population
living below the poverty line.
And now the apparel
industry, which employs 1.5 million of the country's 133 million
people, is in trouble: Exports have been
eroded by the global economic downturn, the rise of China as a garment
manufacturer and, most stingingly, changing U.S. trade policies.
The United States buys about 40 percent of the $4.5 billion in
apparel exported by Bangladesh, helping to turn the country into one of
the world's largest producers of men's dress shirts and khaki pants.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. retailers reduced their orders, and
today they are paying 30 to 50 percent less for shirts, slacks and
other items, as weak global demand has driven down prices. As a
consequence, companies in Bangladesh have eliminated 300,000 jobs and
closed 1,200 factories.
But more then economic fundamentals are hurting Bangladeshi
apparel firms. In 2002, the United States began giving special trade
preferences to African, Andean and Caribbean apparel manufacturers. A
U.S. company that buys a pair of slacks or a blouse from Bangladesh
pays a tariff that is 8 percent to 30 percent higher than if it came
from Uganda or Peru.
The U.S. government says Bangladesh is such. a world-class
apparel producer that it doesn't need special treatment. That's hardly
solace to the leaders of a country in which at least 35 percent of
adults are unemployed and the per-capita annual income of $370 is one
of the lowest in the world.
Like other developing
countries, Bangladesh catapulted into the global economy on, the back
of its cheap, plentiful labor force. During the 1980s, the apparel
industry here ballooned as entrepreneurs turned dilapidated multistory
buildings into sweatshops, many without ventilation or fire escapes.
Workers, mostly young women and girls, migrated to the cities and
toiled from dawn to nightfall. They earned a few pennies an hour, but
that was more than they could make in the fields or cleaning house.
By the mid-1990s, labor activists estimated that as many as
50,000 children were helping to sew clothes for U.S. retailers such as
Wal-Mart Stores and Kmart Corp.
Media exposes sparked the threat of a consumer boycott in the
United States. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, proposed prohibiting the import
of any manufactured or mined goods made by children under age 15.
Threatened with the loss of its second-largest market, the
Bangladeshi garment association signed a landmark child-labor pact with
the United Nations, international Labor Organization and UNICEF on July
4,1995. Not only would manufacturers stop employing children younger
than 14, but the factories also would pay to have former child laborers
educated. And parents would be given about $5 a month to offset the
loss of a child's earnings.
Critics of the pact call it a well-intentioned failure. They say
many young former factory workers ended up in far more dangerous jobs,
including prostitution, because their families survive on their wages.
In Washington, government officials consider the child-labor
project a model; the United States has helped establish similar
programs in Pakistan's rug and soccer-ball industries. A Labor
Department spokesman said Bangladeshi factory owners were pioneers in
the global battle against child labor and should be "applauded for
But the United States never made any quid pro quo promises to
Bangladesh, the spokesman said, adding that granting beneficial trade
status is a "matter for Congress."
Harkin said the opposite is true. A spokesman for the senator
said it was up to the Bush administration to decide whether - and how -
Bangladesh should be rewarded for the "great job" it has done in all
but eliminating children from apparel-factory floors.
Edward Gresser, director of trade and global markets at the
Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, said the United States had
inadvertently worsened the economic situation for Bangladesh and other
Muslim countries by giving special trade benefits to non-Muslim
He warned that the effect would be "to enlarge an already
daunting pool of unemployable urban young people in the Muslim world,
those most likely to be vulnerable to appeals from religious
fundamentalists and terrorist groups."
U.S. officials say they are not ignoring Muslim economies,
pointing to a free-trade pact the United States has with Jordan and a
proposed agreement with Morocco.
In the United States, the powerful domestic textile and apparel
manufacturing lobby has fought hard to protect the dwindling U.S.
manufacturing base, from low-cost imports. The American Textile
Manufacturers Institute lobbied against proposals by American and
foreign officials that allies in the U.S.led war on terrorism --
including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey -- be given preferential
access to U.S. apparel markets.
"You shouldn't use the U.S. textile industry as a bargaining
chip with Muslim countries," said Cass Johnson, a spokesman for the
Other industrialized countries have responded to Bangladesh's
plight: Japan, Canada and Australia, recently joined the European Union
in agreeing to provide, quota-free and duty-free access, with some
restrictions for apparel products from the country.
But Bangladeshis fear that any gains will be obliterated in
2005, when the United States and other importing countries are
scheduled to eliminate all apparel quotas. Once imports from China and
India are no longer restricted, the contest for the lucrative U.S.
market will be all the more fierce.
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