Fast, Cheap, Dead: Shopping and the Bangladesh Factory Collapse

The collapse of a factory building near Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed at least 362 people, is almost certainly the worst accident in the history of the garment industry. It’s worse than the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 that you learned about in American history class and which helped lead to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards. It’s worse than the 1993 Kader Toy Factory fire in Bangkok, which killed 188 people, nearly all of them women and teenage girls. It’s worse than the Ali Enterprises Factory fire in Karachi, which killed at least 262 people — and which I’m guessing nearly all of us had forgotten about, or never knew it occurred, even though the disaster happened only eight months ago.

Bangladeshi officials are still investigating the causes behind the factory’s collapse on April 24, although Sohel Rana, the building’s owner, was arrested over the weekend as he attempted to flee the country. There’s no shortage of possible reasons — building codes in Bangladesh are too rarely enforced and corruption in the country is rampant. Nor, sadly, are such disasters rare. A major fire in a textile factory in Dhaka killed over 100 people just last November. While thousands of Bangladeshi protesters have taken to the streets in the wake of the building collapse, and the political opposition has called for a national strike on May 2, there’s little hope that the catastrophe will be the last that the country’s garment workers suffer.

The clothes that the doomed workers in Dhaka were laboring over when their factory collapsed include some Western brands, like Primark and Joe Fresh. Is there anything we as clothing consumers can or should do about these deaths? In a post written last week as the dead were still being tallied in the building collapse, Slate’s economics blogger Matthew Yglesias suggests, not really:

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.

Yglesias was raked over the coals by, as he put it in a later piece, just about the entire Internet. (This one was particularly good.) Yglesias was guilty of, at the very least, bad taste — the economic wonkery can wait until the dead have been counted. He makes the neoliberal point, just as the sweatshop defenders did during the Nike Wars of the 1990s, that Bangladesh’s low, low cost of doing business has helped the country take needed textile jobs — including from China — and build an $18 billion manufacturing industry. But there’s a difference between accepting that workers are being paid sweatshop wages to make our incredibly inexpensive clothes — the minimum wage is $36.50 a month — and accepting that they must labor in deathtraps. And they do: according to the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group in Washington, more than 1,000 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in fires and other disasters.

Even Yglesias backtracked later, emphasizing that there are on-the-ground improvements that can be made to labor standards in Bangladesh that could mean the difference between life and death. (See this interview with Kimberly Ann Elliott of the Center for Global Development for a few ideas.) And those improvements shouldn’t drastically increase the cost of clothes made in Bangladesh — which is a good thing, given our addiction to cheap and fast-changing fashion:

“It bothers me, but a lot of retailers are getting their clothes from these places and I can’t see how I can change anything,” 21-year-old university student Elizabeth McNail said, clutching a brown paper bag from clothier Primark the day after a building collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, killed at least 362 people. “They definitely need to improve, but I’ll still shop here. It’s so cheap.”

International retailers can do more to advocate safer standards at textile factories that manufacture their wares, in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Customers can do their part by putting a little pressure on their favorite brands, though that would require placing as much value on the cost of a life as you might on the cost of a T-shirt.

Read more: 

Savar Factory Collapse, April 24th, 2013. Pictures Courtesy of Reuters 

Bangladesh’s war-crimes tribunal is sullying its judicial and political systems
Mar 23rd 2013
The Economist

IN 1961 Israel kidnapped Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and put him on trial for crimes committed 20 years earlier. Eichmann had been secretary at the Nazis’ Wannsee conference that led to the Holocaust. His trial in Jerusalem was a model of meticulous process. The prosecutor was Israel’s attorney-general; the defence lawyer, a leading German attorney; the proceedings were broadcast. They were everything the Holocaust was not: open, subject to evidence and challenge, and legal.

Now consider the trials under way at the International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. There too, men are being tried for dreadful crimes committed many years ago, in this case in 1971, during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan. The defendants have been accused of genocide, mass murder, mass rape and attempting to exterminate whole groups of people. But their trials have fallen a long way short of Israel’s model of due process.

The government has interfered in the court’s deliberations. Public discussion of the proceedings has been restricted. The number of defence witnesses was curtailed. One was even kidnapped on the steps of the court. In one case, the presiding judge resigned and the death sentence was handed down by three men who had not heard all the witnesses. In another, the defendant was represented by a lawyer who did not have nearly enough time to prepare a case. That also ended in a death sentence. These are profound judicial failings, falling short not only of the standards of the Eichmann trial but also of the requirements of Bangladeshi law. They contradict repeated government assurances that the trials would be models of judicial process.

The ostensible and laudable aim of these trials was to help Bangladesh come to terms with its past by bringing to justice those responsible for the crimes that marred the nation’s birth. By this measure, the trials have been an utter failure. Because most of the accused are linked to Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist group allied to the main opposition party, the court process has become enmeshed within the country’s internecine politics. Jamaat thugs with home-made bombs have gone on the rampage; police have fought running battles with mobs; dozens have died. Bangladesh is descending into a spiral of intolerance. The government talks of banning Jamaat; the opposition is becoming more aggressively Islamist; rumours are spreading that an election due this year may be postponed.

The poisoned well

Sadly, most Bangladeshis are cheering on the tribunal’s flawed proceedings. When the court passed a life sentence (rather than a death sentence), the crowds that gathered to protest against this leniency were the biggest that had been seen in Dhaka for 20 years. Now the government wants to rewrite the law to allow death sentences to be applied retrospectively. Few seem to care a jot for due process; rather, everybody thinks that the defendants are getting their just deserts.

The Economist has no sympathy for the views of Jamaat or its backers. But justice does not exist solely for those with a particular approved outlook. As the Eichmann trial demonstrated, due process is essential to provide true justice to the victims of genocide. Eventually Bangladeshis will also come to recognise this and demand a proper accounting. But by then it will be too late. The war-crimes tribunal is poisoning the well from which Bangladesh will one day want to drink.

The politics of victimhood in Bangladesh
Women and minorities continue to be used as political pawns in a nation that is struggling with its bloody past. 
March 29, 2013
From Al Jazeera

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a writer and commentator on Muslim women’s issues, and has been named as one of the UK's 100 most influential Muslim women. She is the author of Love In A Headscarf.

"The fact that the government and media in Bangladesh have refused to allow the stories of so many women, civilians and minorities to be heard is deeply worrying," says author [EPA]

Earlier this week, Bangladesh marked its national day. It ought to have been a day for joy, marking the maturing of a nation which is now just over four decades old. But 40 years on from the bloody war of 1971, which led to the independence of the nation, its events still dominate the national narrative and continue to polarise its population. 

The past victims of the war are still far from justice and the number of those who are victims of injustice as a result of the ongoing conflict is also rapidly growing.  

What is most challenging in resolving today's tensions is how all of these victims - women and minorities in particular - are being manipulated to serve political narratives, and thereby losing the opportunity for true justice to be served from crimes past and injustices present.   

No right thinking individual can do anything but support the pursuit of justice on behalf of the victims. It is no surprise then that the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) - convened to try alleged war criminals - has generated such emotion on both sides: those who believe these are the perpetrators and those who believe they are being targeted because they are opposition.  

Following the life sentence of Jamaat-e-Islami's Abdul Kader Molla on January 5, protesters filled Shahbag crossing in Dhaka, calling for death sentences of the 11 opposition members on trial at the ICT.

On February 28, the ICT delivered an execution verdict for JI leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. As of March 8, Odhikar - a human rights organisation based in Bangladesh - has reported at least 143 dead and thousands injured. According to other sources, these numbers have reached 165 and 3,828 respectively.

A majority of the casualties, over 90 percent, include civilians. Unfortunately in times of crisis, especially in times of war, women and children suffer the most, despite their significant lack of involvement in the initiation of conflict. Bangladesh's women, children and minorities have been losers, in the independence war of 1971, but, more recently, now.  

Shahbag has captured the international imagination, as it has been painted as the successor of Tahrir Square. But it is not entirely clear if the comparison stands. 

Tahrir protests were a popular movement against government tyranny. Here the protests are in line with government policy. They are calling for blood, the blood of opposition figures being put on trial and sentenced as part of the controversial International War Crimes Tribunal.

There has been much discussion regarding the significant presence of women in the Shahbag protests. Greater numbers of female voices in the public sphere is generally a good thing.

In the case of Shahbag, the presence of women was to be expected as some have argued, given the fact that many women were raped during the 1971 war.

In fact, the government, the general media and Shahbag protesters put the number of rapes committed by the Pakistani army and their local collaborators during the war somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000, but is countered by some academics that the numbers are not supported by evidence.

The available evidence, according to Sarmila Bose, supports the reports of the occurrence of rape - a terrible enough occurrence - but can make no definitive claims about the number of victims or the perpetrators. 

The perpetrators cannot be surmised, as per the available evidence, to be exclusively members of the Pakistan army or their "collaborators". In fact, many women were victims of Bengali mobs of militant nationalists. 

Exaggerations arguably trivialise the victims' suffering by implying that their actual suffering is not noteworthy on its own. Many writers, including Nayanika Mukherjee and Naeem Mohaiemen, disagree vehemently with Bose's methodology and conclusions and argue that her work is biased in favour of the Pakistani army. 

What some of these writers have allowed however, like Afsan Chowdhury and Yasmin Saikia, is that the discussion on these rape victims needs to cross political and national boundaries.            

In an article on 1971, Saikia mentions that she could find no information on women in the archives and libraries in Bangladesh. She did hear about these women in the media though - as a nameless group of 200,000-plus women. Otherwise they were "tellingly absent even though [they] were used by politicians to mobilise anger against Pakistani enemies decades later".

Saikia argues that this silence of women and their stories, especially when it does not support the political rhetoric of the ruling government is dangerous. Women are completely erased in the political narrative and their cases have not been investigated or verified. They have merely been forced into silence by men and institutions and victimised, as they were prior in a war fought and controlled by men.  

Given the unification of protesters around the trial of the alleged war criminals, an indignant focus on the rape cases is clear. However, issues with verification and failure to produce evidence for many reported cases is troubling, as it echoes the international criticisms and scandal surrounding the ICT by the Shahbag protesters. 

Yesterday's female victims, today's political pawns

When women's stories and the truth of their suffering are neglected, we need to ask: are the victims of 1971 being used as a political means?

By not examining the occurrences of rape in the war of 1971 seriously, the government and the protesters transform multitudes of women into mere bodies and abuse the memory of the victims as a political tool.  

Unfortunately, more recent abuses of women's rights have been selectively ignored, though they focus strongly on the figures circulated by the government and the media of the rape victims of 1971. Reports of rape in Chittagong, Savar and Dhaka have been overlooked in the zeal to focus exclusively on the rape cases of 1971. 

And the sense that women are being used as political pawns is more intense when we look at the  arrests of women of the opposition and female students and the raid on their meeting venue, as well as the subsequent arrests of female protesters from the Women's Rights Organisation at the Dhaka Press Club.           

On December 17, the office of the women's student branch of JI was raided and 20 members, including Abdul Kader Molla's wife Sanwara Jahan, were arrested. They were forced to remove their headscarves in a public setting, several hours before they were presented to the court.

Among those arrested were: an elderly woman, a pregnant woman and students from some of the country's top institutions. They were denied bail and were imprisoned despite the lack of charges brought against them.  

Just weeks later, 15 members of the Women's Rights Organisation Bangladesh were arrested for their demand to release those women and for simply complaining about their mistreatment at the hands of the police. 

Last week, 16 more members of the female student wing of JI were arrested. Most of them were grade 9 students, who had just completed their Junior School exams. These were girls in their early to mid-teens accused of planning "to sabotage". The house of one of these students, who had invited others to celebrate their Junior School Certification and commendable results, was subjected to a police raid. It was a clear case of invasion of their lives and rights being ignored. Reparative justice for the past cannot begin when justice today is flouted.  

Aside from large numbers of civilian casualties and the continued victimisation of women, there is also very serious recent spike in the prosecution of religious minorities in the country. Reports of attacks have reached 1,000 minority houses and 50 temples. Amnesty International has shown concern over this recent wave of attacks on the minority Hindu community. 

The fact that the rape victims of 1971 have been silenced and appear to be used as pawns in a fierce political crackdown against opposition voices offers neither confidence in the current process nor in the hope for reconciliation and healing for the past.

It is important to allow all victims - civilians, women, children and minorities - to be heard. The fact that the government and media in Bangladesh have refused to allow the stories of so many women, civilians and minorities to be heard is deeply worrying.

The fact that the only cases of the abuse of minorities that reach mainstream news are those in which the opposition is implicated is extremely disturbing.  

This recurring pattern is indicative of something much larger - of the troubling reality of Bangladeshi politics: only some victims matter. And when only some victims are served justice, the process of putting right the past can never be fully realised.  

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a writer and commentator on Muslim women's issues, and has been named as one of the UK's 100 most influential Muslim women. She is the author of Love In A Headscarf.

Bangladesh: UN human rights experts appeal for end to violence linked to court decisions
March 29, 2013

A group of United Nations independent human rights experts today called for an immediate stop to violence in Bangladesh and a return to peaceful demonstrations following reported large-scale protests since early February.

The demonstrations are largely linked to the decisions of the Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal, which was established in 2010 to try people accused of committing atrocities, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the South Asian nation, including during the country's 1971 independence war.

Clashes in recent weeks between security forces and activists have reportedly killed at least 88 people and injured hundreds of others.

“I call upon the authorities in Bangladesh to ensure prompt, impartial and effective investigations of all killings committed irrespective of whether they were committed by a State or a non-State actor,” said the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Christof Heyns.

According to a news release from the UN human rights office (OHCHR), there have also been “worrying reports on attacks against members of the Hindu community, their homes and places of worship, as well as against journalists.”

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, warned against such attacks on journalists and other media workers.

“The ongoing violence has threatened the safety of journalists in the country and led to the killing of at least one blogger, and injury of a large number of media workers. Twelve websites have also been shut down by the Bangladeshi authorities,” he noted, calling of all parties to refrain from inciting violence.

With regard to reported attacks on members of the Hindu community and their places of worship, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, Heiner Bielefeldt, emphasised that “the Government must ensure that the rights and freedoms of this community are protected in conformity with international human rights law.”

Together with the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, he expressed particular alarm at the destruction of Hindu temples and homes in the context of the current violence in Bangladesh, which left tens of families homeless.

“The attacks against the Hindu community are of serious concern, due to the fact that it constitutes a minority group in Bangladesh which has been at risk of violence at various times of the country's history,” added the Independent Expert on minority issues, Rita Izsák.

“States must protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth and justice, Pablo de Greiff, added his voice, saying that “governments should strive to achieve justice for victims of past human rights violations and restore trust in the rule of law including through criminal prosecutions.”

In February, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Christof Heyns, expressed concern at the aspects of non-compliance with fair trial and due process reported during the proceedings before the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal, including the pronouncement of death sentences.

At issue was the sentencing of Abdul Kalam Azad, following a trial conducted in absentia that did not provide for all the guarantees of a fair trial and due process, according to OHCHR. Then on 5 February, the Tribunal sentenced Abdul Kader Molla to life imprisonment.

Ms. Knaul and Mr. Heyns stressed that international law requires compliance with the most stringent fair trial and due process guarantees in such proceedings, and called upon the authorities in Bangladesh to ensure these are upheld.

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes. 

Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami’s Reply to the Statement of Human Rights Watch on 1 March, 2013.


The Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (“Jamaat”) notes with dismay that Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) has alleged that its supporters have been involved in ‘lethal’ and ‘unacceptable’ acts violence. HRW has also indicated that Jamaat should issue a public statement to its supporters to stop the violence. It is understood that in issuing the statement HRW relied on newspaper reports from Bangladesh.

Jamaat would like to clarify that its members have not instigated the recent spate of violent clashes with the police. Nor are the protests all over the country organized by Jamaat. The vast majority of protests are by ordinary Muslims who have come out on to the streets to protest the death sentence passed by a controversial International Crimes Tribunal against Mr. Delwar Hossain Sayedee. Sayedee, as an Islamic thinker, has a popularity beyond his political identity. 

Jamaat would like to point out that due to political repression and mass arrests of its members and followers, its political activities have been severely restricted. On 19 September 2011, its Central and Metropolitan Offices were forcibly closed by the police and have remained closed ever since.  Its Ameer (i.e. President) is in jail. There are warrants of arrest issued against the Acting Ameer and he is now in hiding to avoid custodial torture. The party’s Secretary General is in jail. The two people who were subsequently appointed (one after the other) to replace him have also been arrested and are now in jail. The third person appointed is now avoiding arrest in fear of custodial torture.  Of the 7 Assistant Secretary Generals, 6 are in jail. 12 of the 16 member Executive Committee have been arrested. Of the 6 City Ameers in the 6 metropolitan cities, 2 is in jail, while the remaining 4 are in hiding.

At the grass-root level, the situation is far worse. 54 of the District Ameers in the 64 districts of Bangladesh have been arrested. The rest have warrants of arrest issued against them. All of the sub district (or Upazilla) Ameers in the 493 Sub Districts of Bangladesh have warrants issued against them and are now in hiding. As such the leadership of Jamaat is either in jail or is living in fear of arrest and torture by the police. Jamaat no longer has effective control over its members and supporters. Even the issuer of this rejoinder is evading arrest in fear of custodial torture. As such it is inconceivable that Jamaat is in a position to instigate the clashes all over the country which began on 28 February, 2013. 

A number of anti-Jamaat newspapers such the Daily Star, the Prothom Alo and the online news portal BDBNEWS24 have been making  unsubstantiated allegations that Jamaat has been burning temples. These newspapers have been supporting the call for banning Jamaat. Moreover, they have indiscriminately described all protestors against the verdict by the International Crimes Tribunal as members/supporters of Jamaat. The news provided by most media outlets in Bangladesh are now biased towards one view or the other. Independent and fair reporting is almost no longer possible by the local media. 

It should be mentioned here that although 3 madrasahs (Islamic religious schools) have been burnt in northern Bangladesh, Jamaat has encouraged restraint amongst its supporters not to highlight the issue. Jamaat has also issued a statement that it was not involved in any attack on temples.

Jamaat would like to take this opportunity of informing HRW that around 120 people have been killed over the last 4 days, half of whom were killed on 28 February. Five of the dead were policemen. The rest were innocent civilians including women and children, all of whom died from bullet wounds. Women protested with their brooms and brought their children along. Live ammunition was used to disperse crowds, as the government was keen to show that the trials are universally acknowledged as fair. The only weapons used against the police (who were dressed in full riot gear) were brick bats. As such the police action was unnecessary and disproportionate. In many cases (reported on a number of television channels), the police were only attacked by angry mobs only after they had run out of ammunition.

Such action by the police is a continuation of the custodial torture and killing of member and supporters of Jamaat. Over the past couple of months the police have been randomly picking up member/supporters of Jamaat and have shot at them at point blank range (while in their custody) in full view of the media. The images of such point-black shooting have been documented and archived and are now available on the internet . 

These custodial shootings have been authorized by the Police Administration including the Police Commissioner for Dhaka Metropolitan Police, Benzir Ahmed.  Mr. Ahmed had in late 2012 ordered his officers to shoot Jamaat men on sight. This has been reported in a number of national daily newspapers including Ittefaq  Bangladesh Pratidin , Naya Diganta , Amar Desh  and Manabzamin  

Although we note that HRW has objected to the use of the word genocide, the scale (120 dead in 4 days) and nature of the police actions in over 20 districts of Bangladesh clearly indicate that murders as crime against humanity have taken place. Supporters and followers of Jamaat and opponents of the International Crimes Tribunal have been systematically targeted by the law enforcement agencies. The police have been selecting members of Jamaat and shooting them. All this should be seen against the backdrop of the government move towards eliminating Jamaat and its institutions, to which HRW has referred to in its statement.

We hope international organizations such the HRW will not shy away from correctly identifying the action of the police in Bangladesh as a crime against humanity.  We believe that any delay by international community in making a proper assessment of the situation will encourage the police to be more violent and continue with their actions in violation of national and international law. 

Finally, we thank HRW for protesting against the violations of human rights in Bangladesh.


Bangladesh's Show Trials
by Taylor Dinerman
March 22, 2013 

Today in Bangladesh the Awami League government is conducting a series of show trials against its political foes. The men, all members of opposition political parties, are accused of war crimes committed during the War of Independence in 1971. These trials, conducted by a special court called the International Crimes Tribunal 
[ICT], are in some ways similar to those in the USSR during its Stalinist phase.

The accused in the Moscow trials were not innocent men. They were loyal communists who had helped Lenin to impose his tyranny on the people of Russia and its Empire. They were members of a government that, during the Russian Civil War, committed its full share of crimes and atrocities. Yet no one, least of all the accused, believed that they were on trial because of what they had done to impose the Gulag regime on Russia. They were on trial because Stalin was a paranoid dictator who governed through terror.

The Islamists of the Jamaat Party may or may not be any more innocent than the revolutionaries Stalin executed, but this does not mean they are guilty of the crimes of which the ICT has accused them. It also does not mean that they are innocent. The trials have been so lacking in fairness, and so corrupt, that no one should accept them as legitimate.

The accused have not been allowed full and unrestricted access to defense counsel. Witnesses have been intimidated and not allowed to present their full testimony. One witness was kidnapped, apparently by security forces, from outside the courthouse in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.

According to defense sources, the prosecution presented as if it were hard evidence multiple hearsay testimonies as well as newspaper reports and written statements of dubious origin. To say that the trial has not conformed to international standards is beyond an understatement.

The ICT, however, is not truly a totalitarian institution -- at least not yet. But it and the government it serves are headed in that direction. The Tribunal judges are all members in good standing of the Awami League; their loyalty to that party has been proven by the communications intercepted between one of the judges and an Awami legal advisor based in Belgium. In a small sign that all is not yet lost, the judge resigned. But instead of a mistrial being declared, he was replaced with another government loyalist, and the trial continued as if nothing had happened.

The verdicts have produced riots and demonstrations throughout Bangladesh. Contrary to some claims, these demonstrations began as an effort by Awami supporters to change the sentence of life imprisonment, handed down to one defendant, to the death penalty. Many pro-Awami protesters apparently fear that if their party loses the next election, the defendants who are sentenced to life in jail might be pardoned by the new government. This apprehension reveals just how political these trials really are. If the trials were legitimate, the overwhelming majority of the public would insist that the men who had been found guilty stay in jail, no matter who the Prime Minister was.

Bangladesh has a long history of political street violence: in recent days, more than 80 people have been killed, and opposition leaders are being arrested during street protests.

The Awami league originated as a Marxist-Leninist style of party; its conversion to the principles of democracy was never solid, and mostly in evidence when it was in opposition. Whatever Islamic principles the Jamaat stands for, the ICT has utterly failed to support any ideals of democracy or rule of law.

To punish the crimes of 1971 using a dubious and highly politicized legal process, apparently intended to result in the execution of some of the government's political foes, does nothing for the cause of justice or for the future of Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh Riots Threaten Its Boom
By ALEX FRANGOS in Hong Kong and SYED ZAIN AL-MAHMOOD in Dhaka, Bangladesh

March 21, 2013

Troubles in Bangladesh are beginning to spoil its reputation among foreign companies that had flooded into the country—and are highlighting risks to investors looking for new manufacturing bases cheaper than China.

An upswing in the past few years that had lifted this impoverished South Asian nation into one of the world's top clothing exporters now risks slipping through its fingers after a series of tumultuous events.

Violent protests this month over the sentencing of three Islamist opposition leaders for war crimes during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence have led to at least 60 deaths and widespread strikes.

The protests come on the heels of two apparel factory fires, one in November and a smaller one in January, which killed a combined 119 garment workers and attracted widespread negative press overseas. Rights groups said the fires reflected sometimes-dangerous working conditions and lax enforcement of labor standards in an economy that has become a major supplier to American and European retailers.

Now, some companies are speaking of the country in the past tense.

Police detained a Bangladesh Nationalist Party lawmaker, at left, during a strike in Dhaka on March 7.

"Bangladesh was a good place to do business. But you have to read the political trends in the world," says Christophe Roussel, chief executive for global nonfood sourcing and logistics at Tesco Corp., TSCO.LN +0.34% the world's third-largest retailer after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. WMT -0.37% and Carrefour CA.FR +0.89% SA.

"We are already moving away from Bangladesh," adds Veit Geise, vice president for sourcing at VF Corp., VFC -0.02% a Greensboro, N.C., company that owns brands such as Wrangler, Timberland and Nautica. "How many eggs do you want in a basket that's basically a powder keg?" Both men were speaking at a meeting of supply-chain executives about sourcing goods in Asia sponsored by the French Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

It isn't the first time pessimism arises around Bangladesh's garment industry; in 2005, the lifting of textile quotas fed worries that smaller garment-producing countries would be crushed by China's greater ability to export. But despite such concerns, Bangladesh's exports have continued to increase. According to data supplied by Bangladesh's Export Promotion Bureau, garment exports grew by more than 10% in the first eight months of the fiscal year ending in June, helped by diversification into emerging markets.

Any effects of concerns around the recent volatility won't be seen for a while. Nevertheless, in the latest period, exports to traditional markets in Europe and North America slowed to a combined growth of around 5% from a year earlier. Analysts say this may be a reflection of nervousness among the world's largest retailers due to sluggish economies as well as a reluctance to risk shipment delays.

The latest unrest ignited Feb. 5 when a war-crimes tribunal sentenced a senior Islamist politician to life in prison. Two other opposition figures have been sentenced to death, sparking what many have called Bangladesh's worst riots since independence from Pakistan. Local producers say they also are suffering from the turmoil.

"We are badly hit," says Rubana Huq, managing director of garment exporter Mohammadi Group. "Thousands of trucks carrying goods to Chittagong port have been burned or damaged during strikes in the last two weeks. Manufacturers are chartering cargo aircrafts to make up for lost time. The country's image has been badly damaged."

Bangladesh had been one of the biggest beneficiaries of a major reordering of the world's low-end manufacturing in the past few years. Rising pay in China has forced companies to find less-costly production locales, especially for goods that require armies of laborers such as apparel, shoes and linens. Bangladesh's exports of clothes have nearly doubled since 2008, creating thousands of jobs and putting a new sheen on the long-struggling economy.

But what many companies have found is that countries like Bangladesh—which seem like alternatives to China, including Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia— have their own obstacles. While salaries might be lower, political instability, poor infrastructure, recurring strikes and labor-law complexities can add their own costs. China's deep supply-chain network is hard to replicate quickly elsewhere, making it difficult for some factory owners to move. Nike Inc. NKE -0.36% recently said only eight of the 896 factories it worked with in 2011 were in Bangladesh as it reduces its exposure to countries presenting reputational risks.

That means there could be a limit to how much production actually leaves China in the coming years, economists say.

"Whereas China wiped out Korea's textile industry, Bangladesh or Cambodia won't wipe out China's," says Ben Simpfendorfer of Silk Road Economics in Hong Kong.

Tesco has already moved aggressively to diversify its sources of goods away from China. The low-price retailer has reduced its reliance on Chinese factories from about 80% of its goods a few years ago to 60% today, Mr. Roussel said, with Bangladesh playing a big role in that transition. But after recent volatility in the country, Tesco is thinking twice. "We were overloaded in Bangladesh," he said. "It's not about the conditions in the factory; it's the country itself."

Tesco is looking for manufacturing sites closer to its core European markets, such as Turkey, Eastern Europe and Africa. But China will remain its biggest supplier, he says, as China will remain dominant in industries such as toys and electronics.

Any further loss of investor interest in Bangladesh would mark a big lost opportunity for the country, which remains one of the poorest in Asia, with a per capita gross domestic product of less than $2,000 and a history of natural disasters.

What it does have going for it is a large population, with most of its 150 million people of working age, and relatively low wages, which helped fuel a manufacturing boom centered around garment making. After years of rapid growth, Bangladesh's clothing exports have hit close to $20 billion, nearly as much as the second-largest exporter, Italy, according to World Trade Organization data. China, the world's largest clothing exporter, sent abroad $154 billion of clothes in 2011.

Neighboring India has looked on with envy as Bangladesh scooped up more business in recent years. India's garment exports are expected to be around $13 billion this fiscal year which ends in March, around the same as last year and short of the government's target of $18 billion.

But now India sees an opening. A Sakthivel, chairman of India's state-backed Apparel Export Promotion Council, estimates around $500 million of orders have shifted from Bangladesh to India in the past four months. "Some of the buyers are coming back to India," he says.

Azizur Rahman, a senior official of the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone, denied that foreign investors may be pulling out. "The government is determined to keep the export-oriented industries free from political strife," he said. "We have plenty of investment in the pipeline and we hope to maintain our rapid growth."

The government has remained bullish, setting an export target of $28 billion for the 2013 fiscal year ending June 30.

But many manufacturers around Dhaka are skeptical. Garment-industry leaders say buyers have canceled scheduled trips due to the unrest, while manufacturers have incurred steep transport costs to make deadlines.

"The orders are still coming, but we will see the negative effect of the political upheaval in the coming months," said Ahsan Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Instute, a Dhaka-based think tank.

Bangladesh's textile industry is also facing challenges in keeping wages low. Although the minimum wage set by the government of $36.50 a month has remained the same since 2010, wages are set to be reviewed by the government next year, and pressure from labor groups has been rising.

Owners were forced to temporarily close 300 private garment factories in the Ashulia industrial belt outside Dhaka in June last year after clashes between workers and police. The factories reopened after three-way talks between government ministers, manufacturers and workers' unions, and the government promised to give ration cards to workers to buy commodities at subsidized rates.

All those pressures mean more foreign companies may move to reduce exposure to the country, and potentially other nations seen as alternatives to China.

"We source significantly from Cambodia and Bangladesh, but we do want to put a kind of cap on those countries," says Richard Thomas, head of Far East for U.K. department-store chain Marks & Spencer MKS.LN +0.54% . "There are the political issues and risks associated with them. My personal view is that you shouldn't source more than about 25% of your goods globally from a place like that."

—Biman Mukherji in New Delhi contributed to this article.

Write to Alex Frangos at

A version of this article appeared March 22, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Bangladesh Riots Threaten Its Boom.

March 26, 2013

Police brutality still remains a huge problem in Bangladesh. Attacks on unarmed and unsuspecting civilians have increased over the past couple of months. This YouTube clip provides some  footage of these incidents.

March 03, 2013

Of greater concern are the disappearances of civilians by the  Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). RAB was established by the government has been responsible for over 200 extrajudicial killings since the Awami League came to power in 2008.
“Hardly a week goes by in Bangladesh without someone being shot by RAB with the authorities saying they were killed or injured in ‘crossfire’ or a ‘gun-fight’. However the authorities choose to describe such incidents, the fact remains that they are suspected unlawful killings,” said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Bangladesh Researcher. “
 According to reports, in February 2012, two university students of Islamic Studies were abducted by RAB men in uniform at Nabinagar.