The rapid growth of Bangladesh’s garment industry has been a blessing and a burden to the country. Even as it has provided jobs to millions and helped Bangladesh cut its poverty rate, it has also exploited the nation’s poorest and most desperate, leading to the gratuitous and preventable deaths of thousands (see: Rana Plaza in 2013).
So invaluable is the industry to Bangladesh that the country is doubling down on the business, despite the repercussions. Already the world’s second largest exporter of clothing by some estimates, Bangladesh intends to double its apparel exports to $50 billion by 2021.
The country’s commerce minister, Tofail Ahmed, announced the plan last week, including the creation of a “garment village” in the southeastern port city of Chittagong—a major export hub—to help the country hit its goal. That village follows on one already under construction in the city of Bausia, being funded by a state-owned Chinese firm. The Bausia village is expected to house more than 200 factories and contribute up to $5 billion in export value.
These villages don’t just show a commitment by the government to making more money off the garment industry, which now accounts for nearly 82% of Bangladesh’s total exports. They’re also supposed to make conditions safer for the workers in them.
Currently factories in these cities tend to be spread around in an unplanned manner, which makes them hard to monitor, and they can spring up wherever space is available, including in decrepit, unsafe buildings. In Bausia, factories that don’t currently comply with regulations will be moved to the villages, where workplace, health, and fire safety regulations can be enforced. Plans for the Bausia village even include facilities for medical treatment, proper waste disposal, and day care, which is critical given that about 80% of Bangladesh’s garment workers are women, and they tend to be entirely responsible for child care.
Government plans for a garment village have apparently been floating around since as early as 2005. But in a manner sadly typical of the way Bangladesh’s garment workers are generally treated, it wasn’t until the deaths at the Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza that the government began moving forward in earnest.
The US, which is the largest importer of garments from Bangladesh, has thrown its support behind the country’s target of doubling exports and the Chittagong plan. Marcia Bernicat, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, called it “an ambitious, but very possible goal” and said it demonstrates “that business success goes hand-in-hand with workers’ rights and safety.” The US will reportedly join with two Bangladeshi banks in offering a $22 million credit guarantee on loans to help improve safety in garment factories.
It all sounds very positive and should create much-needed jobs, even though, as it stands, those jobs pay miserably.
A recent paper by the World Economic Forum, prepared in collaboration with the consultancy Accenture, reported that pay of a garment worker in Bangladesh made up the smallest share of the final cost of a t-shirt.
Cost breakdown of a t-shirt made in Bangladesh and sold in Germany
WEF—like others—also noted that Bangladesh’s garment workers make far below a living wage.
At the announcement, Ahmed urged retailers to pay more for the work they receive, but retailers have little incentive to do so. In response to the topic at a later discussion, H&M’s country head in Bangladesh reportedly said that companies would pay higher prices for merchandise (which presumably would translate into higher factory wages) if manufacturers boosted the quality and efficiency of their production.