This article is a follow up to my first report on my honours field-trip to Bangladesh (available here if you haven’t yet read it). Within this piece I’ll outline my second week in the country, which thankfully wasn’t affected by the hartels (political strikes) which prevented us from being able to leave our Dhaka guesthouse in the first week.
Our field trip to Bangladesh happened to coincide with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which was a definite double edged sword. During Ramadan, Muslims (who make up 89% of Bangladesh’s population) fast from sunrise until sunset and also refrain from drinking all liquids. In a climate where temperatures topped 33 degrees every day and humidity levels were over 90%, I have no idea how they managed this. Indeed, the health-professional in me feared for their hydration levels constantly! Citizens are expected to attend work even when fasting, although it’s well documented that productivity drops considerably, by 35-50% during this time. In terms of how Ramadan affected us personally, the main issues were finding restaurants that were open during daylight hours, and we were reminded that it if we were going to drink water, it was expected that we do so discreetly. This was not easy, considering Bangladesh’s overpopulation issues and that the possibility of finding somewhere ‘private’ to rehydrate was near impossible at times.
On the upside, a wonderful Ramadan tradition is ‘Iftar’. This is the breaking of the fast at the end of the day, which is generally done with close friends and family. Though, we were almost always invited by the hospitable Bangladeshis, whom we’d travelled with to the field trip sites that day, to enjoy Iftar with them in the evening. In Bangladesh the ‘Iftar plate’, which you begin the meal with, usually includes cooked chickpeas, two dates (always two – I have no idea why), Piyaji (a lentil, onion, and chili falafel) and some fried vegetables such as eggplant and zucchini. Everybody begins eating at the same time, and restaurants all have prominent televisions displaying a countdown for when it is acceptable to begin breaking fast. After the Iftar plate, a delicious buffet was on offer at all the restaurants we ate at.
Seeing so many restaurants and cafes closed during daylight hours, I wondered about the economic effects on businesses, such as restaurants and grocery stores, during Ramadan. Apparently they do not suffer a downturn in demand at all, as people stock up on Ramadan essentials (the prices of which increase significantly pre-Ramadan). Furthermore, young Bangladeshis tend to eat and drink at cafes until well into the night, naturally leading to increased demand for goods and services at this time, which outside of Ramadan would usually not occur.
The problems inherent with the Bangladeshi garment industry have unfortunately been a focus of much media attention, following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory near Dhaka. This disaster resulted in the death of over 1,100 people. I spoke to Pulak Podder, the country manager of a company who organises for clothing to be exported to the Russian market, about the major issues facing the garment industry and whether he predicted change for the better in the near future.
Labour laws in Bangladesh do not meet the minimum requirements of the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation, and a significant secondary issue is the suppression by factory owners of trade union formation. Pulak explained that workers had demanded a 10% wage increase following the collapse of the factory, but that international buyers were only willing to pay an extra 3-4% per garment. Hence, the industry has been placed at risk of losing the comparative advantage that has made Bangladesh one of the highest exporters of clothes to Western markets (second only to China). He saw the issue most significantly compromising the health and safety of workers, as the lack of enforced building regulations. In particular, the common problem whereby buildings are erected without proper approval and extra levels are built, despite foundations not being strong enough to sustain them. Factory owners are very rarely penalised when this occurs, so no incentive really exists to avoid these dangerous practices.
As I mentioned in my previous article, Bangladesh has been identified as one of the ‘next eleven’ economies, essentially meaning that it is expected to become one of the biggest economies during the course of this century. Despite still falling under the classification of one of the ‘least developed’ economies, the growth rate of the country has been significant, at around 6% GDP growth per year. Factors impeding potential future growth are the frequency of natural disasters (particularly flooding) and the lack of reliable power supply, which results in up to four power outages per day in some parts of the country.
The New Economics Foundation publishes an annual Happy Planet Index, ranking countries based on life-expectancy, well-being and environmental sustainability. Bangladesh regularly ranks amongst the highest countries in this list, and in 2012 was placed 11th out of 151 nations (Australia came in at 76th). Bangladesh’s high ranking on this index is due mostly to it having the third lowest carbon footprint of all countries in the world.
Bangladesh is a fascinating, if somewhat difficult country to visit. Foreign travellers are an extremely rare sight there, and having dozens of eyes and huge groups of children follow me down the street took some getting used to (and I will admit, at times I just couldn’t handle it and had to escape to the privacy of a tea shop or hide in a CNG taxi). I’m very much looking forward to visiting the country well into the future however, to see how it has changed and if the economic expectations of its ’next eleven‘ status come to bear.
2 thoughts on “Bangladesh field trip – Part Two”
A fascinating read. Great that you got to experience Ramadan. The challenge of addressing the poor conditions of factory workers whilst at the same time not putting so many regulations in place that Bangladesh loses its comparative advantage (and any hope of increasing the standard of living) is a fine balancing act.
After the accident I had friends here suggest that the situation was to stop buying Bangladeshi (which is just crazy), or, more reasonably, to put pressure on their retailers to only buy from manufacturers that met certain minimum standards.
On the other hand, I have had relatives (I am half Bangladeshi) who work in this sector argue that it is very difficult and costly to meet this third-party accreditation. As you say, meeting them increases the cost of production to that of countries with lower sovereign risk.
I’m glad you liked the article! The issues you raise regarding how the developed world should respond to disasters such as Rana Plaza are extremely complex but my personal view is that boycotting companies who outsource manufacturing to Bangladesh is counterproductive, yet at the same time we cannot expect that employers there are going to be able to attain health and safety standards on par with what we enjoy in the West. We definitely shouldn’t enforce or expect this, but ensuring that garment workers have a safe building to work in is “the cost of doing business” so to speak, and if Bangladeshi garment factory owners cannot maintain their comparative advantage without guaranteeing this then I’m not sure that it’s a comparative advantage that they should really be exploiting. I suspect that factory owners *can* afford to improve safety standards but choose not to because they can get away with it and the industry is booming. It also employs mostly women and for that reason alone I would hate to see a downturn in activity in the garment production sector. I ultimately hope that Rana Plaza was a wake up call to the Bangladesh government and factory owners, and that they work to ensure that nothing as tragic ever happens again if it can be avoided, for the sake of the industry and the people employed in it.
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