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Bangladesh, Cambodia and Sri Lanka Weave a New Future in Garments

FILE - Bangladeshi garment worker Asma, who worked on the 4th floor of Rana Plaza garment factory that collapsed exactly a year ago, works at a factory meant to rehabilitate survivors of the accident, the worst in the history of the garment industry, in S

The garment and textile industry has been very important to the fabric of the national economies in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Amid major industry changes in recent years, each nation has adapted to shifting market conditions and internal pressures for improved labor conditions and products.

Sanchita Saxena, Executive Director of the Institute for South Asia Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, is author of the book Made in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, which examines the garment industry changes in these three nations over the past decade. In excerpts from her conversation with VOA’s Jim Stevenson, the changes followed the end of a quota arrangement that had been in place for more than 30 years.

SAXENA: There was a lot of anxiety in Asia and other parts of the world amongst garment exporting countries that the MSA quotas, the Multi-Fiber Arrangement export quotas, were about to expire in 2005. So at that time I started working on a lot of programming around how to address these issues. There was a lot of pessimism that all these countries would drastically lose market share and what was going to happen after that. It wasn’t until about five years ago that the idea for the book really came about. It seemed like an interesting question of how certain countries seemed to have survived. There was a big shift in terms of thinking about issues like labor rights. There was a lot of changes placing in these countries and there was a lot more dialogue.

STEVENSON: Let’s go back to that Multi-Fiber Arrangement and what it meant to these countries and the textile industry there. How did it help them, how did it hurt them and what did the expiration of this mean to them?

SAXENA: The idea was that they were going to just flood the market. So the quotas were there to keep them in check. What happened is, in countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka – all the three countries that I look at in the book – they created sort of haphazard growth in some sense of the sector. Because the quotas were in place, they guaranteed market share. There was very little desire to actually look at issues of labor rights or how to actually improve products. They just did the minimum needed to continue their share of the market. As suppliers started going to these countries and as they realized there was abundant cheap labor, that actually added a lot of pressure to the system. Now that is actually what we see, kind of the ramifications of the MFA quotas now, even though they are expired. A lot of the disasters that we see in Bangladesh are due to this haphazard growth and this lack of planning of the sector.

STEVENSON: Your book goes into the emergence of coalitions and how the industry developed beyond 2005 and the ending of this agreement. Tell us about these coalitions and how they came about.

SAXENA: The book really tries to look at the industry beyond the headlines. I actually argue that in Bangladesh, which is always in the news for very negative aspects of the sector, actually has been taking a lead and has been successful in creating these coalitions, coalitions of the various groups and stakeholders who are part of the industry. At one time it used to be very close relationships between the private sector and the government. Now the role of labor has really emerged as an important player in the coalition. There have been various channels to use to represent the role of labor. Also the role of buyers has really changed. They at one time used to come and only deal with expressing issues. Now they are actually in many cases advocating for improved labor rights. We see this in varying degrees in the three countries that I look at. I argue that Bangladesh has actually progressed further than the other two countries in terms of creating these stronger coalitions.

STEVENSON: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka – do the nations interact as far as working on trade and textile industry or have they come up individually, on their own?

SAXENA: I think it is really more individually. Each country over the years [has] developed their own niche. Bangladesh focuses really on basic T-shirts and really basic goods. Sri Lanka is much more of a higher end player. Their products would have more intricate beading and lace and other kinds of things that would require more detail. There is a clear difference in the types of products they would produce. They kind of specialized in some sense over the years.