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Bangladesh exported goods worth USD338.4 million (34.84 crore) a year after the independence. Jute and jute processed products accounted for 90 per cent of export worth UDS313 million (31.3 crore). Tea and frozen food followed jutes, contributing about 0.25 per cent of the total exports.

But the readymade garment (RMG) sector has boosted the economy of the country in addition to changing the chart of export it was 50 years ago. RMG has occupied the leading position in export beating jute. In a gap of five decades, garment industry has contributed to various fields including rise in export earnings by 96 times, creation of 4 million (40 lakh) jobs for rural people, women empowerment and expansion of other related industries. Bangladesh is the second-largest RMG exporter after China and also tops the global environment-friendly apparel factory list.

As Bangladesh celebrates its golden jubilee of independence, the RMG sector has become a miracle and set a strong foot in the global market. Though RMG was nowhere near the export after the independence, the sector has now brought USD34.13 billion (3,413 crore) equal to Tk 2901.05 billion (290,105 crore) in 2018-19 fiscal.

Last fiscal, earning from RMG export dropped a bit to USD27.94 (2,794 crore), but the figure still accounts 83 per cent of total export. On the other, share of export of jute and jute-processed products reduced to only 2.62 per cent.

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RMG sector in the beginning

The export of private sector’s RMG began with sending 10,000 pieces of shirts to France by Reaz Garments in 1978. The owner of Reaz Garments, Reaz Uddin, earned 130,000 francs from this consignment. That was the beginning. Then Desh Garments came. Noorul Quader established the Desh Garments in Chattogram’s Kalurghat after leaving a government job. The company started exporting in 1979. At that time, Noorul Quader sent 130 people to Korea to receive training. Later many of them became owner of the clothing factories.

By the mid-80s, Anisur Rahman Sinha established an apparel factory named Opex. The company soon started expanding and employed 45,000 workers in next 10 years. Many other people including Anisul Huq, AK Azad, Mostafa Golam Quddus and Qutbuddin Ahmed also ventured into the apparel business during the operation of Opex. Many of those companies are now leading the apparel sector. Majority of the companies have also expanded businesses besides the RMG sector.

The RMG industry has expanded so fast because of cheap labour, policy support from the government and relentless work of the entrepreneurs. As a result, Bangladesh didn’t stop albeit the quota system ended in 2005. The RMG sector continues to move forward unitising the generalised system of preferences (GSP) facility in the European Union (EU). Duty-free export to Canada and several other countries has helped the RMG export grow more.

Revival after big shocks

After the end of quota system, the big shock on the RMG sector came on 24 November 2012 when more than 100 workers died in a tragic fire at Tazreen Fashion. Then the biggest industrial disaster in the history of Bangladesh took place within a year of Tazreen fire. The collapse of Rana Plaza building in Savar on 24 April 2013 killed as many as 1,138 workers.

Following the two big incidents in a gap of five months, the RMG sector fell into existential crisis. Organisations working on labour rights call for boycotting Made In Bangladesh products in different countries. In the wake of huge criticism, local entrepreneurs then undertook a concerted effort at the initiative of foreign buyers and labour organisations to improve the work environment. They then managed to give a green signal to world by reforming factory infrastructures, power and fire related faults through investing huge money on it.

The RMG sector bounced back well after Tazreen Fashion fire and the Rana Plaza blinding collapse. Statistics at least shows it. Export of the RMG accounted for USD17.91 billion (1,791 crore) in 2010-11 fiscal and it doubled in next 9 years. However, the sector fell into a new crisis during coronavirus pandemic. But Bangladesh is performing relatively better compared to many rival countries, the sector’s entrepreneurs said.

Factories in Bangladesh supply about 40 per cent of the EU countries’ annual T-shirt sale. Bangladesh is also the top exporter of trousers, short pants and men and children shirts to the EU. Besides, Bangladeshi entrepreneurs lead in exporting denim to the USA.

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The apparel and textile sector of Bangladesh has also reached another height in setting up of environment-friendly factories. As of October last year, Bangladesh has 14 out of 27 best-environment friendly factories in the world. India and Taiwan have two factories each while Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Poland, Mexico, UAE, Italy, Indonesia and Ireland have one each. The RMG sector faces criticism sometimes amid such huge achievements. Labour organisers alleged that workers are barred from exercising their rights to trade union.

Regarding this, former president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) Fazlul Hoque told Prothom Alo, “The RMG sector is, of course, a big miracle after 50 years of independence. Had all of the potential been maximised, the RMG industry would have had a far better position.”

“This sector will lead the economy of Bangladesh in next 15-20 years easily. Although dependency on the RMG sector will not be the same in future as it is now. We have many things left to be done in many fields including expensive and hi-tech apparels,” said Fazlul Hoque adding there are still miles to go in the RMG sector.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna

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