In Bangladesh, the garment trade wields a great deal of clout

Jim Yardley / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 25, 2013 at 05:00AM

DHAKA, Bangladesh — In the honking, congested heart of this overcrowded capital, one glass office tower stands uniquely alone, surrounded by water, accessible by a small bridge. It is a symbol of the power of Bangladesh’s garment industry, the headquarters of the country’s most powerful association of factory owners. It is also illegal.

So said the Bangladesh High Court, concluding that the land had been illegally obtained, the building had been erected without proper approvals and the location threatened a network of lakes that form the natural drainage system of the capital. The High Court called the building “a scam of abysmal proportions” and ordered it demolished within 90 days.

That was two years ago. The building still stands. The case is now in a legal limbo — more proof, according to critics, of the power of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Members control the engine of the national economy — garment exports to the United States and Europe. Many serve in Parliament, or own television stations and newspapers.

For two decades, as Bangladesh became a garment power, now trailing only China in global clothing exports, the trade group has often seemed more like a government ministry. Known as BGMEA, the organization helps regulate and administer exports, and its leaders sit on high-level government committees on labor and security issues. Industry trade groups in the United States could only imagine such a role.

But the April collapse of the illegally constructed Rana Plaza factory building, which killed more than 1,100 people, has placed the entire global supply chain that delivers clothes from Bangladeshi factories to Western consumers under scrutiny. And the quasi-official garment group, in the eyes of its critics, presents a major conflict of interest at the center of Bangladesh’s troubles and is a big part of the systemic problems that have made the country a dangerous place for garment workers.

“You can’t put the fox in charge of the chickens,” said Rizwana Hasan, an environmental lawyer. “BGMEA has no regulatory authority under the laws of the country. It’s a clubhouse of the garment industry.”

Bangladesh is working to restore the garment industry’s credibility after last month’s decision by the Obama administration to suspend a special trade preference for the country. The European Union is also considering penalties. Bangladesh has responded by passing new labor laws and pledging to inspect the structural safety and legal compliance of the nation’s 5,000 garment factories.

In both instances, the garment group’s interests were well represented. It has hired a team of engineers and is helping oversee the post-Rana Plaza factory inspections — even as the High Court cited the group for a litany of violations on its own headquarters. Meanwhile, the trade group brought its influence to bear in a lobbying campaign as Parliament amended the labor laws this month.

Bangladeshi officials promised to overhaul their labor laws, which fall short of standards defined by the International Labor Organization and tend to suppress unions, contributing to safety problems, labor advocates say. But the results of the overhaul were less significant, especially for the garment industry. One amendment required that industries create profit-sharing programs for workers. But exporting industries, notably the garment sector, were exempted.

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