The Bangladesh Apparel and Safety Expo in Chittagong from August 6-8 was focused on clarifying the road map to the $50 billion export target for the garment industry by 2021.

Delegates agreed that the goal to double the strength of the industry in the next six years was “challenging, but not impossible,” and that a focus on improving infrastructure would be crucial to achieving this growth.

Important among the issues was greater availability of gas connections, transport facilities and consolidated areas where factories could work undisturbed by political turbulence as well as a focus on creating more skilled workers.

“Dialogues are great for branding, especially where representation from all the stakeholders come together as they did,” Rubana Huq, managing director, Mohammadi Group and moderator of  the first session on Branding Bangladesh told WWD.

“The sessions were helpful because participants pledged to further the $50 billion target instead of critically viewing the goal. The discussions reflected a lot of hope but were also an honest exchange revolving around the current reality where lack of infrastructure is a crucial element,” she said.

A.N.M Saifuddin, chief coordinator of the expo, said that the three-day session helped identify important points as well as resulting in immediate business. “There was a fair on fire safety and electrical safety equipment which was very well received — with orders of $22 million for safety equipment and orders of $20 million for spot orders of apparel, among other business that was done at the event,” he said.

He said that it was also an occasion to understand the need for change and growth in Chittagong, the port where 95 percent of the export orders leave the country.

“The question of whether the port will be ready to handle double or triple the capacity and how it needs to change to handle these high volumes is also crucial. As is the growth of rail and road transport from the bulk of the garment factories that are located around Dhaka,” he remarked.

Bangladesh is home to more than 4,000 garment factories and is the second-largest exporter of garments in the world. Eighty percent of the country’s exports come from this sector, which earned $25.5 billion in 2014. More than four million workers work in the garment industry, two-thirds of whom are women.

Delegates at the conference included Tofail Ahmed, minister of Commerce; Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh; Benoit-Pierre Laramee, high commissioner of Canada to Bangladesh; Sorren Robenhagen, charge d’affaires, Embassy of Denmark; Martine van Hoogstraten, charge d’affaires, Embassy of the Netherlands; Jennifer Bair, professor, University of Colorado at Boulder; Roger Hubert, chief representative, H&M Bangladesh, factory owners, and government officials.

Although the Chittagong event followed up on many of the ideas that came up during the Dhaka Apparel Summit in December 2014, there was a lot more clarity on the process, and a focus on immediate action items as well as concrete suggestions for change.

Dr. Nazneen Ahmed, senior research fellow, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies said that a few key factors that needed to be addressed included: Simplified customs procedure to reduce export and import processing time; better container handling; a tripling of the capacity of the existing port, and improvement of the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway, railway and waterways.

The need to pay attention to transport facilities for moving the apparel from Dhaka to Chittagong has come to the forefront because of weeks of politically motivated transport blockades earlier this year. Factory owners said that they lost millions of dollars in this process and have been calling for greater political stability.

There were calls for setting up special economic zones or industrial parks for the garment sector in different parts of the country including Chittagong, ensuring adequate supply of electricity, gas and energy for this industry as a whole; a competitive bank interest rate; ensuring labor compliance and workplace safety; Initiatives to attain environmental compliance; market and product diversification; political stability, policy support for upgrading technology in this sector, etc.

Commerce Minister Ahmed as well as other government officials and ministers at the event made note of some of the key points. Ahmed said that Chittagong would also have a garment village similar to one that is being made with Chinese investment in Munshiganj, near Dhaka, where more than 200 new factories are expected to be.

A 146-page road map by Professor Sharif As-Saber, RMIT University, Australia, made on the basis of the recommendations of Dhaka Apparel Summit in December will soon be handed over by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to the prime minister, conference officials observed.

Meanwhile, conference attendees said that part of the event was also about reassurance.

“The U.S. is here today because we absolutely want to continue this partnership and help BGMEA reach its goal of exporting $50 billion by 2021,” Ambassador Bernicat said in her opening address, noting that the U.S. was the largest single consumer buying Bangladeshi garments, $5 billion last year.

As a BGMEA official observed after the summit, “There was a lot of talk. But rather than words, it seemed like were putting in the bricks along the path to the future.”

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