The workers arrive early to this garment factory in the capital's
northern suburbs, most by foot, some from homes miles away. They
trickle through the entrances in groups of three and four, hundreds
of women in saris or long, flowing kurtas, dozens of men wearing
slacks and collared shirts.
Across five factory floors, this plant's employees work 12-hour
shifts, assembling shirts, sweaters, and pants for sale in Europe,
Canada, and the United States. It's a scene repeated 3,000 times
over in Bangladesh, where garment factories account for $4.9 billion
in sales and employ a bulk of the country's wage-earning women.
"It's a good job, I'm glad to have it,'' says Shagorika, an
unmarried young woman who helps support her family by stitching
together sweaters and other knitwear for $60 a month. "If I wasn't
working here my brother and sister would have to leave school.''
But the international trade pact that underpins Shagorika's job
is about to come unraveled. The Multi-Fiber Agreement, a 30-year
arrangement governing import quotas from the developing world, will
expire on Jan. 1, leaving Bangladesh and other small countries
exposed to crushing competition from China and India.
While free trade will prove a boon to the heavyweights of the
developing world, there are fears it will come at the expense of the
poorest tier of nations.
Economists aren't sure yet if the change will bring disaster or
opportunity to the 1.5 million Bangladeshi garment workers who rely
on the industry for survival. Projected job losses vary wildly. One
estimate by the United Nations Development Program said as many as a
million workers could face unemployment. Some garment industry
analyses see short-term job losses offset by long-term growth fueled
by the lifting of foreign import tariffs.
"Frankly, nobody knows what's going to happen,'' says Salman
Rahman, the deputy chairman of Beximco, one of Bangladesh's largest
Wal-Mart an indicator
As uncompetitive plants are closed, Bangladesh garment executives
say, stronger producers are likely to grow.
One barometer is foreign orders. Exports to Wal-Mart, the
American retail giant, grew 18 percent in 2003 to almost $900
million, and are expected to increase by another 30 percent this
"I don't think Wal-Mart would be expanding here if things were
that bad,'' says Mr. Rahman. "But, again, no one knows.''
The Multi-Fiber Agreement, or MFA, was ratified when the
developing world had little clout in the halls of world trade
policy. It allowed the world's richest states to set quotas to
protect jobs from the lower production costs of rising economies
As China, India, and others were limited in the amount of apparel
they could export to North America and Europe, smaller countries,
including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Cambodia filled the
vacuum, boosting employment and living standards. …