We cannot help but take pride and feel happy when Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres terms Bangladesh a “development miracle” and showers heaps of praise on our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for achieving this miracle.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is truly “the jewel in the crown” in Bangladesh’s development journey. The way she has been leading the country towards becoming a knowledge-based developed country defying all odds is unparalleled in the present-day world. Even in the time of the worldwide coronavirus crisis, thanks to her bold and astute leadership, the pandemic situation in Bangladesh is much better than that in many developed countries and the economy is rebounding pretty fast.
Congratulations are also due to the premier for achieving “SDG Progress Award” while attending the 76th UN General Assembly. It is a testament to her leadership capabilities, riding on which Bangladesh managed to maintain steady progress in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in spite of the pandemic.
However, while the premier is leading from the front to transform Bangladesh into a developed country as envisioned by Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, all patriotic citizens of the nation are required to do their bit from their respective positions.
It is a matter of great pride and prestige for the readymade garments (RMG) entrepreneurs, workers and other stakeholders that the apparel sector is playing a key role behind the country’s SDGs progress and UN status graduation from a least developed country (LDC) to a developing one as well.
Moreover, the sector has a crucial role to play in materializing the long term development vision of the country. The sector has immense potential. But it will be difficult to tap into these potentials if we cannot properly highlight the sector’s capacity, progress towards sustainability and other positive stories.
Here apparel diplomacy can play a crucial role. That is why we are working to make apparel or economic diplomacy one of the core components of Bangladesh’s foreign policy. Be it finding out ways for retaining or extending market access facilities after LDC graduation, signing new trade deals such as free trade agreements with potential exporting countries, branding “Made in Bangladesh” products, attracting foreign investment or enhancing the country’s image and exploring new markets, apparel diplomacy can do wonders for the RMG sector in particular and the country in general.
As a part of our apparel diplomacy with a renewed focus on the export market, I along with former BGMEA President Md Shafiul Islam (Mohiuddin), Vice President Miran Ali and Director Abdullah Hil Rakib have toured around the US and Canada, two of our main export destinations, throughout the month of September.
During our visit we met with various stakeholders of the fashion supply chain, especially buyers and delegates of brand associations, and focal persons in the government, media, academia and development organizations, and non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs).
In total we held more than 30 meetings with various stakeholders, including the US-Bangladesh Business Council of the US Chamber of Commerce, American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), International Cotton Advisory Committee, International Finance Corporation and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, and with brands like VF Corporation, Ralph Lauren, Amerex Group, Dreamwave and Canadian Tire Corporation Limited.
In those meetings, I highlighted the country’s continued economic growth over the last one decade, political stability, massive infrastructure development, favorable investment climate and so forth. I asked US businesspeople and the NRBs to invest more in Bangladesh, requested US brands and retailers to ensure ethical sourcing by giving fair prices, and urged the US government to consider reducing duty on apparel products from Bangladesh.
I also called upon the AAFA, Bangladeshi missions and NRBs to promote Bangladesh as a safe and sustainable apparel-sourcing destination and encourage consumers and buyers to source more garments including non-cotton items from the country.
We can increase the RMG sector’s global market share significantly through industry upgradation, particularly in the areas of skills, efficiency and technology, and diversification of products. In this regard, I urged US brands and buyers to collaborate with their suppliers in Bangladesh to build their capacities in manufacturing those items which have demand in the US market.
Diversification of products is very important to ensure sustained growth of Bangladesh’s apparel industry. I also sought support and cooperation from the US Green Building Council to portray the positive image of Bangladesh as a sustainable apparel-sourcing destination in the world and highlight the significance of the green price issue among brands and buyers.
Besides, we want cooperation and support from our foreign missions as well as national and international media in telling the world about the achievements and positive stories of the apparel industry of Bangladesh, by dispelling the myths, misconception and propaganda against us in the international arena.
Bangladesh is scheduled to graduate from its LDC status to a middle-income country in 2026. With an extra three years to prepare for a smooth transition, Bangladesh could avail the European Union’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) facility till 2029. But if we can achieve the GSP plus facility through our diplomatic maneuvers, we will have the opportunity to enjoy tariff-free export to the EU, which is one of our main markets accounting for more than 60 percent of our total apparel exports.
With this in mind we have held several meetings in Brussels with Bangladesh’s representatives in the European Union on the post-GSP tariff facility “GSP Plus”.
We requested that one of the conditions of GSP Plus be exempted from the import threshold of 7.4 percent or an alternative formula be introduced. Upon request, the EU removed this import threshold condition in their proposed 2024-2034 GSP regulation. As a result, if Bangladesh loses GSP benefits, there will be no major barriers to getting GSP Plus benefits.
We want to work in coordination with our foreign missions to explore new markets. Our RMG industry can no longer just depend on the two traditionally preferred business markets: the US and the EU. While we need apparel diplomacy to keep the benefits of the traditional markets alive, we should also explore and exploit non-traditional markets like Japan, South Korea, Russia, Latin American countries, and even China and India. Moreover, this year we are going to take part in the Dubai expo with a view to expand our market to the Middle East.
During our North America tour we met with the chiefs and other high officials of Bangladesh’s mission in the US, UN and Canada, where we requested them to keep up diplomatic efforts so that Bangladesh can enjoy duty-free export benefits for 12 years after LDC graduation.
All the international forums must be told forcefully that Bangladesh needs a duty-free export facility so that it can recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and sheltering of more than 1.1 million Rohingyas, and also for countering terrorism through economic growth.
We also hope that our foreign missions will take steps to properly disseminate positive stories of Bangladesh’s apparel industry, especially the sector’s remarkable progress in the areas of workplace safety, social and environmental sustainability and workers’ wellbeing.
Under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Bangladesh is now marching forward on the highway of development, following the footsteps of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. We have already achieved the status as a developing country and hope to become a developed country by 2041.
However, we do not have sufficient foreign investment yet to become a developed country, although there are a lot of potential sectors for investment. In fact Bangladesh is an ideal country for investment in the textile sector; especially the scope and potential for investment in high value-added apparel products in the manmade fiber sector is quite high. Almost 75 percent of the total consumption of global textiles is non-cotton, where the share of Bangladesh is only 25 percent.
Bangladesh is also heavily dependent on imports to meet the demand for non-cotton fabrics. Therefore, the scope for investment in non-cotton textile is wide open, which can provide us import substitution as well. We hope non-resident Bangladeshis will come forward to invest in these potential and fast-evolving sectors, and thus they can make an important contribution to the national economy.
In its journey of four decades, the Bangladesh RMG industry has gone through tremendous changes, overcoming a myriad of problems. Especially the changes in the last one decade in terms of workplace safety, workers’ wellbeing and empowerment, and social and environmental sustainability have attracted worldwide acclaim.
Hong Kong-based supply chain compliance solutions provider QIMA ranked Bangladesh second in “Ethical Manufacturing” in the world. The famous brand Walt Disney has decided to reinstate apparel sourcing from Bangladesh. These are the sweet outcomes of our hard labor, massive investment and patience, and we have to convey these messages to consumers and buyers across the world through fruitful and persistent apparel diplomacy. In this way we can tap into the full potentials of the RMG sector.
The author is the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.