Politics has struck the apparel industry in Bangladesh once again.
Eight days after it started on Jan. 6 with a call from the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the apparel sector has been hit by a transport blockade, bomb threats and killings.
Business leaders and factory owners reacted with dismay on Wednesday as the blockade has resulted in cumulative losses, slowing down movement of both finished goods from factories and raw materials being transported to them.
More than 18 people have died in violence related to the blockade, with four passengers killed on Wednesday as a bus caught fire after being attacked.
Trouble started on Jan. 5 just before the first anniversary of the general elections in Bangladesh. Calls to disavow the government headed by prime minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, which came to power last year after opposition parties boycotted the election, turned into a series of protests, many of which have become violent. Opposition leader Khaleda Zia of the BNP was allegedly detained in her office space on Jan. 3, and subsequently Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP’s secretary general, was arrested. On Tuesday, an attack severely injured Zia’s adviser Reaz Rahman and further embittered the situation.
The resurgence of violence is being viewed with rising frustration by business heads in the garment industry. Although 2014 turned out to be a year when business was looking up, the previous year was fraught with major violence, countrywide shutdowns and protests.
Equally frustrating for the industry is that there appears to be no immediate end in sight to the blockade.
“We want to clearly state that the blockade will continue until a government is installed through people’s votes by removing the current illegal one,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, joint secretary general of the BNP, said.
An estimated 200,000 buses and trucks have reportedly stopped running over the last few days, according to industry sources. Although the government has provided security forces to ensure safety for transport carrying shipments, factory owners said that it was far from adequate. Security has further been stepped up by the Border Guard Bangladesh for goods that are being transported on the highways connecting the port city of Chittagong to Dhaka.
However, a call for a nationwide strike on Thursday has been adjusted to a 12-hour period from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 24 hours, leaving a small window open for business.
Bangladesh’s apparel industry — which has exports of $24.5 billion and employs more than four million workers, mostly women — has been going through a period of trauma and change over the last two years, after two major incidents caused deaths of more than 1,250 workers. Bangladesh is the second-largest producer of apparel in the world after China.
In the past year, a series of factory inspections have led to further investment plans to improve safety. Factory owners contend that the money to make these changes would become more of a challenge with the loss of business over the last eight days. Plans revealed in December to grow Bangladesh’s apparel exports to $50 billion by 2021, when the country turns 50, are also being questioned.
“Fifty billion dollars in exports will turn into a daydream if this political violence does not stop,” said Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
He said that the industry produces goods worth 4.3 billion takas, or $55.33 million, a day and that half of these being blocked resulted in a business loss of about $22 million each day. This was apart from the loss of confidence by the brands and penalties for late shipments, which may result in a flight of business to other countries.
“The political conflicts must be resolved quickly,” he said.
Islam said that the political unrest in 2013 caused apparel factory owners to spend an additional 55 billion takas, or $700 million, for air shipments of consignments and 9 billion takas, or $115 million, in related losses.
Taking stock of business over the last six months, as results came in for the first six months of the financial year 2014-15 from July to December, AKM Salim Osman, president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) said that the industry was maintaining hope. “A lot depends on how the political situation changes and stabilizes,” he said.
Knitwear exports were up 2 percent over the previous year at $60.61 billion for the last six months of the year, while woven garments were down 35 percent to $59.62 billion.