Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 9th 2013 Contents MAY 2013 • WEEK TWO www.guardian.co.tt BUSINESS GUARDIAN
INTERNATIONAL | BG27
DHAKA - Bangladesh s garment boom has made Moham-
mad Fazlul Azim a wealthy man. Over three decades, his
empire has grown from a single factory to a string of plants
that employ 26,000 workers and clock up an annual turnover
of about $200 million.
Azim, who is also a member of parliament, has benefited
from government policies to grow the industry into a global
powerhouse. His elegant home here in Dhaka is a haven of
luxury with an outdoor swimming pool, walled off from the
chaos of the capital s streets.
But he has a complaint: His costs have almost doubled
over the past several years. It s now time for the big Western
brands he supplies to pay more for their clothes, and stop
squeezing his margins, he declares.
"The buyers have not given anything. They just say increase
your productivity ," Azim said in an interview.
In workshops across this South Asian country of 160 million
people, however, few are sympathising with the textile tycoons
and their bottom lines. Western retailers are powerful, but
so too are the garment moguls.
Thanks to their political clout and now a new Industrial
Police force that crushes dissension at their plants, labor
activists say, it is the factory owners themselves who keep
garment workers wages lower than anywhere else in the
world - and all too often get away with lax safety standards.
The collapse on April 24 of an eight-story building near
Dhaka that housed several garment factories was a harrowing
reminder of the collective failure - by the authorities, owners
and buyers - to ensure that cheap doesn t mean dangerous.
The Rana Plaza tower fell like a pack of cards. More than 430
workers were killed and scores remain missing. It was the
third deadly incident in six months to raise questions about
worker safety and labour conditions in the poor South Asian
country, which relies on garments for 80 per cent of its
Until now, there has been little pressure here to improve
safety conditions and wages for the 4.5 million Bangladeshis
working in the industry. That inertia stems, in part, from
how deeply the industry has woven itself into the power
More than 30 garment industry bosses are members of
parliament, accounting for about 10 percent of its lawmakers.
Other owners, like Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the
building that collapsed, have strong political ties: He was a
local leader of the youth wing of the ruling party, the Awami
Rana was arrested trying to escape across the border to
India and faces charges of unlawful construction causing
deaths. Bangladesh officials say his eight-storey complex was
built on swampy ground without the correct permits.
"At least 50 per cent of the members of parliament have
business links of some sort," says Babul Akhter, a leader of
the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, an organisation
that works with labour unions. He alleges that many of these
politically connected garment makers take advantage of their
clout to disregard the minimum wage levels stipulated under
Activists such as Akhter who campaign for safer factories
and better wages are often treated as enemies of the state in
a country whose economy would be devastated if Western
brands pulled out.
One prominent campaigner, Aminul Islam, paid the price
last year: Bearing signs of torture, his body was found one
day many miles from where he was last seen. The government
dismisses allegations it had a hand in the killing of Islam, but
he had been detained and tortured by security forces in the
past. His killing is still under investigation, and no arrests
have been made in the case.
Akhter himself was arrested for inciting mob violence and
beaten in jail three years ago after a bout of labour unrest;
today, he says he still has charges pending against him from
that time, and is followed by unknown men who, he suspects,
are intelligence agents.
"There is no reason to follow him," said Mainuddin Khan-
daker, the second-ranking bureaucrat in the home ministry.
"We don t have any such reports."
Last outpost of cheap
As pay levels rise in traditional factory-floor nations,
Bangladesh stands as a last outpost of cheap labour, an advan-
tage that has helped lift it to number two in the global ranking
of garment exporters, behind China.
Bangladesh ranked last in minimum wages for factory work-
ers in 2010, according to World Bank data, behind Cambodia,
the last country added to the global supply chain in 2000.
"It s the lowest of the low in terms of wages," says Malte
Luebker, the International Labour Organisation s senior wage
specialist for Asia-Pacific. "Wages are the key drawing point."
How Bangladesh remains so competitive is, in part, the
story of powerful First World retailers playing factory owners,
such as Azim, off each other to secure the lowest price.
It is also the story of a government that stifles labor activism
both to protect the country s economic lifeline and to please
business magnates who have become part of the political and
It s a set-up that suits everyone, including customers in
the troubled economies of Europe and North America who
want discounted T-shirts and trousers from big brands such
as Wal-Mart, Target, H&M and Loblaw.
What makes it all possible is the Bangladeshis who make
the clothes, many working in hazardous conditions and some
earning less than US$2 a day.
'Next eleven' economy
The garment industry is emblematic of Bangladesh s rise
as an emerging economy in recent years. Once the eastern
wing of Pakistan, Bangladesh won independence after a bloody
war in 1971 that left its economy shattered. The disaster-
prone country became a byword for desperate poverty in the
years that followed, dependent on foreign aid as it struggled
with political instability, corruption and over-population.
Today, thanks in large part to the explosive growth of its
garment industry, Bangladesh is included in the so-called
"Next Eleven" economies, a term Goldman Sachs coined to
describe countries such as Indonesia and Iran, Mexico and
South Korea that have the potential to become some of the
world s biggest emerging economies this century. (Reuters)
How textile kings weave a hold on Bangladesh
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