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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 January, 2005, 00:42 GMT
Bangladesh garments aim to compete

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Dhaka

Bangladesh garment worker
Millions depend on Bangladesh's garment industry

Developing countries around the world face upheaval after the quota system governing the garment industry was finally phased out at the end of last year.

For Bangladesh the stakes are especially high - it relies on garments for more than three-quarters of its exports.

About 1.8m people, most of them women, work in garment factories.

As many as 15 million more in support industries depend on the trade for their survival.

Job worries

Shanaj Parvin Rekha used to make trousers for export.

Bangladesh garment worker Shanaj Parvin Rekha
If more factories shut down there is no hope
Shanaj Parvin Rekha

Today she sits in her tiny shack made of corrugated iron in Dhaka's largest slum.

She's been embroidering a handkerchief for her new husband to keep her occupied now she's unemployed.

Two months ago the small factory where she worked shut down, an early victim of the end of the quota system.

"I am very worried about it," the 19-year-old said. "We are passing our days in serious hardship but still we have the hope that I will get another job.

"But if more factories shut down there is no hope."

Shanaj Parvin Rekha used to earn just $20 a month, a pittance but enough to keep her going.

Now she has to make last for an entire week what she used to earn in a day.

New era

For decades the world's garment trade has been governed by a system of quotas.

We still think Bangladesh is able to compete
Pelle Karlsson
H&M buyer
It limited the amount efficient countries like China could export to the big markets of the United States and Europe.

The original intention was to protect the garment industries in the West.

But the effect was to guarantee less developed countries like Bangladesh a slice of the trade.

Quotas were abolished from 1 January 2005.

Retailers are now free to buy from whatever country can make garments for the lowest price.

It could mean cheaper clothes for consumers but the pain will be felt in slums in the developing world.

'Opportunity'

Buyers like Pelle Karlsson now have the fate of millions in their hands.

A lot of customers are positioning themselves in Bangladesh, like Tesco, like Carrefour, like H&M
Anwar ul-Alam Chowdhury
owner, Evince Textiles
He works for H&M, a chain that has shops across Europe and the United States.

The company is now deciding which countries to keep doing business with.

"We have our price strategy; we have our quality level and also if the country can work with a good lead time," he said.

"Based on these three factors we will select both our suppliers and the countries that can cope with these things. We still think Bangladesh is able to compete in these areas."

H&M has moved some of its operations in Asia to Dhaka from Hong Kong in anticipation of buying more of its supplies here from now on.

But what is good news for Bangladesh will be bad news for workers in other developing countries.

Around the world the big and the efficient see the change as an opportunity.

Dreams and uncertainty

Anwar ul-Alam Chowdhury is the owner of Evince Textiles.

He has just opened a new factory in Gazipur, about an hour's drive outside Dhaka.

Labourer at the Evince Textiles site at Gazipur
A labourer on the Evince Textiles site at Gazipur

It is so new parts of it are still being built by labourers who carry bricks and cement in baskets on their heads.

Wages in Bangladesh are low, around half those paid in China, giving the country a competitive edge.

"Everybody dreams, you know, so we are also dreaming," said the owner as he walks around his new production lines.

When the factory is up to full speed it will be making 1.5m shirts a month.

"It could be good, I think. A lot of customers are positioning themselves in Bangladesh, like Tesco, like Carrefour, like H&M. So all the indications are that this will be the greatest opportunity for Bangladesh."

But for garment workers like Shanaz Parvin Reka this is a period of uncertainty.

She's still looking for a new job.

And it will be some time before it becomes clear whether Bangladesh will be a winner or a loser in the new global free market for garments.


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