Garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Bangladesh apparel industry is scurrying to cope with its latest disruption following a threat by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria against global fashion buyers in the country.

Concern for future business was fueled after a U.S. State Department warning earlier this month for American citizens to take “stringent security measures” and cautioning against a “heightened threat of further terrorist attacks,” citing a threat last October that specifically targeted apparel buyers in Bangladesh. It is believed to be the first time the fashion sector has been specifically targeted by ISIS.

The U.S. is the largest export market for the country’s apparel industry and many fashion brands already have canceled planned buying trips to Bangladesh as a result of the State Department warning.

“We are already providing high security to visitors,” Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said, adding that factory owners would take into account any changes that needed to be made to facilitate business.

In past years, factory owners have flown to other locations, including Hong Kong and Bangkok, for meetings, when the political-led violence made Bangladesh unsafe for travel. It is part of a roster of solutions, as is better global telecommunications.

Salahuddin Ahmed, director of the MG Group with a turnover of more than $100 million, observed, “The entire world is volatile right now, not only Bangladesh. We are much better off here because factory people are very cautious and most factories are well-protected and under surveillance.” The company manufactures for brands such as The Gap, Target, H&M, Zara and Uniqlo.

Ahmed is not alone in this belief. Government officials, ministers and factory owners echoed that view and BGMEA officials talked about the upcoming Apparel Summit on February 25 in Dhaka as a sign that trouble in the country can be considered overly exaggerated.

However, U.S. retailers and analysts do not believe the matter should be taken lightly.

Sarah Labowitz, codirector of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and coauthor of the report “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s Forgotten Apparel Workers,” said, “I think the security threat is real and the U.S. government has issued a strong travel warning.

“The security situation in Bangladesh has gotten more tense in the last few years that I have been going to Bangladesh and buyers are aware of the changes that have been happening. This is particularly [true] after August. You know you can’t attend gatherings or be in places outside and that will affect the ability to do business and the desirability as a sourcing destination. It also puts more pressure on Bangladesh to compete solely on the basis of cost.”

To Ahmed’s point that security issues are a global concern, Labowitz commented, “Certainly terrorism is a global problem, but the question is, ‘How do governments deal with it?’ I don’t think all of them respond the way the government of Bangladesh has responded in terms of using emergency powers to arrest union leaders and quell labor unrest. The challenge for all governments is how you balance the need for security and the protection of civil liberties and so I think what we’re seeing in Bangladesh is not the way all countries respond.”

For example, labor unrest in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka where hundreds of apparel factories are located, resulted in more than 50 factories being temporarily shut down on December 20. More than 1,500 workers were fired. At the forefront of the workers demands was a tripling in wages from the current 5,300 taka, or $67, a month.

However, at the behest of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina the factories that had been shut down indefinitely were reopened in less than a week, by December 25.

Labor leaders were allegedly arrested and questioned by authorities.

“We are deeply troubled by reports of the detention and interrogation of nearly a dozen labor rights leaders by the Bangladesh government,” the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a group of 28 retailers and brands mostly from North America, said at the end of December.

“While progress has been made, dedicated efforts to support workers’ rights in Bangladesh must continue, and any unwarranted detention or interrogation of labor advocates should not be undertaken or tolerated. We call for workers and management to settle any differences at the negotiating table, peacefully and in accordance with Bangladesh law,” the group said.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, the apparel industry’s largest alliance of labor unions and non-governmental organizations, called on the government “to halt this repression, ensure that those arrested are either released or are provided with proper due process and to drop the indiscriminate charges against hundreds of workers.”

It further added that brands sourcing from the country should “support this position strongly to the Bangladeshi government, and make sure their suppliers do not engage in any retaliation against workers and unionists exercising their right to expression and association, and stop filing unsubstantiated criminal charges against workers” and to talk with the workers to address their concerns.

Siddiqur Rahman observed that basic salary increased in 2013 and that any further demands should be done in a peaceful manner, through discussions with factory management and following the wage board ruling — in which there is an annual increment as well as bonus — both of which are being followed by factory owners.

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