The history of the Readymade Garments Sector in Bangladesh is a fairly recent one. Nonetheless it is a rich and varied tale. The recent struggle to realize Workers' Rights adds an important episode to the story.
Below, we present a detailed narration of the evolution of the RMG sector from its humble origins to the present day.
The shift from a rural, agrarian economy to an urban, industrial economy is integral to the process of economic development (Kaldor, 1966, 1967). Although policymakers in the least developed countries (LDCs) have, at various times, attempted to make agriculture the primary engine of economic growth and employment generation, this approach has not worked, not least because of the contributions of the Green Revolution, which has had the dual effect of increasing agricultural productivity in the LDCs and displacing the rural labour force at the same time. Led by the example of the East Asian economies, most LDCs now accept the need for greater industrialization as the fastest path to economic growth. In particular, countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have demonstrated that an export-oriented industrial strategy can not only raise per capita income and living standards in a relatively short time; it can also play a vital role in modernizing the economy and integrating it with the global economic system.
Bangladesh, one of the archetypal LDCs, has also been following the same route for the last 25 years. Once derided as a “basket-case” by Henry Kissinger (The Economist, 1996), the country stumbled across an economic opportunity in the late 1970s. New rules had come to govern the international trade in textiles and apparel, allowing low-cost suppliers to gain a foothold in American and European markets. Assisted by foreign partners, and largely unaided by the government, entrepreneurs seized the opportunity and exploited it to the fullest. Over a period of 25 years, the garments export sector has grown into a $6 billion industry that employs over a million people. In the process, it has boosted the overall economic growth of the country and raised the viability of other export-oriented sectors.
This essay analyzes the processes by which global trading rules came to help out a poor country like Bangladesh. It demonstrates the impact of the rule changes on the garments sector, and the response of the sector to multiple challenges and obstacles. It also discusses what steps Bangladesh should take in order to deal with the full liberalization of the international garments trade, which occurred in January 2005 and which could potentially threaten the country’s growth prospects. Finally, it details some of the recent developments that have occurred since liberalization took effect.
1.1 OVERVIEW OF THE BANGLADESHI ECONOMY
Bangladesh is a tropical country in South Asia that is situated in the delta of two major rivers that flow down from the Himalayas (the Ganges and the Jamuna). The country’s land surface is therefore largely composed of alluvial silt, rendering the soil highly fertile. Historically, this has made Bangladesh an agricultural nation; although agriculture contributes only about a fifth of the national GDP, it employs three-fifths of the labour force (ADB, 2005).
Bangladesh has an estimated population of 140 million (circa 2005), living in an area of about 55,000 square miles. It thus has the unwanted distinction of being the world’s most densely populated country, and this overpopulation is at the root of many of Bangladesh’s socioeconomic problems. However, the population is largely homogeneous in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion, and this provides a valuable element of national cohesion.
In spite of numerous constraints, the economy has been on a steady growth path for the last 15 years, mainly due to private sector dynamism. The constraints include pervasive political instability and violence, endemic corruption and disregard for the law, frequent natural disasters, inefficient state-owned enterprises that are hotbeds of trade unionism, lack of political will to carry through necessary economic reform, inadequate infrastructure at all levels (power generation, roads and highways, port facilities), etc.
Nevertheless, the economy has proved to be resilient. Since 1990, it has grown at an average rate of 5% per year. The Asian Development Bank projects that real GDP growth will increase to 6% in 2006 and 2007 (ADB, 2005). Bangladesh’s total GDP stood at $275 billion in 2004, and per capita GDP was $2,000 (adjusted for purchasing power).
The table below lists some key macroeconomic indicators for the period 2004-2006:
Sectorally, services constitute the largest portion of GDP with 51.7%. Industry accounts for 27.1% and agriculture 21.2%. However, the distribution of the labour force is reversed, with most people still working in agriculture (61%), followed by services (27%) and finally industry (12%). This imbalance between output and employment is indicative of a large amount of “disguised” unemployment and underemployment. Unemployment (including underemployment) is estimated to be about 40%. The poverty rate, as of 2004, is about 45%.
As shown by the above table, merchandise exports have been growing strongly in recent years and this trend is set to continue. While imports also exhibit strong growth, it should be noted that the bulk of imports consists of inputs into the production process, e.g. machinery and equipment, fuel and petroleum products, chemicals, iron and steel, cement, fabric and accessories (for garments production), etc. The breakdown of various exports by sector is given in the table overleaf (Bangladesh Bank, 2005). The figures are for the 2003-2004 fiscal year.
As can be seen from Table 2, garments and textile items are the dominant export product, accounting for 77% of the country’s total export receipts. This is a relatively new phenomenon. For centuries, the chief export of the Bengal economy was jute, a natural fibre which is used in making carpets, sacks and hessian, but whose economic value went into precipitous decline after the advent of plastic bags and synthetic packaging material in the 1960s and 1970s. How the garments sector claimed the position of top export earner in the years since is discussed in Chapter 3.