Defying Predictions, Bangladesh's Garment Factories Thrive ; Their Exports Grew by $500 Million Last Year, despite an Unfavorable Change in Trade Law and Competition from China

Article excerpt

If the global economics gurus had got it right, Sokina Begum would have been one of over 2 million garments workers in Bangladesh to become the casualties of globalization.

When Bangladesh lost its quota to export garments to the US under new international trade rules in January 2005, thousands of garments factories here were widely expected to buckle under fierce competition from cheaper Chinese exports. The UN predicted in a 2004 report that over a million women workers might be laid off from these factories.

"I attended many meetings where we were told we will lose our jobs because the treaty that helps Bangladesh to sell its goods abroad will be cancelled," says Ms. Begum.

But tallies of export figures for the first year since quotas were lifted tell a brighter story. Garments exports from Bangladesh grew by half a billion dollars last year, with most of the increased sales in the US market. The mass layoffs have not materialized.

"I didn't lose my job, nor did any of the girls at my factory," says Begum. "Instead I got a $1.40 raise last year, and a day off today because we just finished our first big export order for 2006," she says proudly inside her single-room Dhaka shanty.

"Although some small factories have been irregular in their payments, and have made unfair dismissals, we haven't seen the mass layoffs we feared," says Rokeya Sultana with the Dhaka-based worker rights group Karmajibi Nari.

The garments sector is crucial for poverty-stricken Bangladesh, as it accounts for more than 80 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings and employs mostly migrant women.

"The principal reason we didn't lose out to China as everyone had predicted is because labor in Bangladesh is cheaper than anywhere else in the world," says Tipu Munshi, head of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. …