Around the beginning of this decade, something of a tectonic impact shook up Bangladesh's readymade garment sector when a huge structure called Rana Plaza crumbled one fine morning, killing over a thousand workers and maiming many more.
It was a defining moment for our booming apparel sector and the crossroads that the sector had reached. The magnitude of the tragedy was challenging on multiple fronts.
The story of reckless garment factory operations travelled fast among buyers and the media. The poor arrangements in which the industry operated were roundly condemned by critics, now out in force.
There was only one route to be taken at that moment – recasting the narrative of apparel making. To clean it up. To have it roll back the relentless slander that Bangladesh had been confronted with.
There was even talk of a "perfect storm" brewing on the horizon that would upend our garment sector because of the long-pending issues of labour unions, factory compliance and so on.
The garment entrepreneurs soon realised that changes needed to be made in their modus operandi and so reforms were taken.
And today, Bangladesh's garment exports have almost trebled, shedding the Rana Plaza spectre. A large number of factories have become compliant.
In the 2009-10 fiscal year, apparel makers shipped products worth $12.5 billion that reached $34.13 billion in 2018-19, a 173.14 percent growth in a decade.
This was achieved despite Bangladesh losing GSP or the generalised system of preference allowing zero-duty exports to the American market in 2013.
At the same time, the contributions of the readymade garment sector to the country's total export regime have also increased significantly. Ten years ago, RMG contribution was 77 percent to the total export earnings. The figures were 84 percent at the end of the last fiscal year.
RMG export earnings have been upbeat over the last decade, dominating the export chart.
However, the garment sector has of late been facing a different kind of challenge – losing the competitive edge because of an appreciating taka, failure to reduce commodity shock through hedging, reducing lead time, failure to achieve product and market diversification at the expected level, and the impact of global recession.
As a result, the nation's biggest earning sector has failed to keep its positive growth like previous years. Though it started well at the beginning of this fiscal year, RMG export earnings have seen a 7.74 percent negative growth from August to November.
Wages do not ensure decent living
In 2010, garment workers were paid monthly minimum wages of Tk3,000. Since then, minimum wages have increased thrice, reaching Tk8,000 in 2018.
However, the money is still inadequate for a worker to live a decent life considering the country's economic growth.
Over 700 trade unions
Before the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy, there were only four trade unions in the RMG sector. Now, the number has grown to more than 700.
This was possible mostly because the government came under pressure from foreign buyers and the International Labour Organisation on workers' rights to organise unions.
The government has also amended the labour law several times and is still committed to bringing about further changes.
Rise of green factories
Bangladesh, once derided as a bottomless basket, now houses the highest number of green apparel factories in the world, which portrays the country's strong footprints in green production.
At this point, 108 Bangladeshi factories have been certified as green industries by the Washington-based US Green Building Council.
The certification proves that the apparel industry has now clearly moved ahead in terms of sustainability in building design, construction and operation.
Bangladesh took the green apparel concept since Rana Plaza incident seriously with the aim of changing the paradigm of the RMG sector before the world.
Six out of the world's top 10 LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified factories are now located in Bangladesh.
Safety measures to make reforms
Nearly 250 global brands and retailers have joined either the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and its union partners or the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Accord said safety in factories has improved substantially and 91 percent remediation progress is a significant achievement.
A 2018 Alliance statement said 93 percent of factory remediation is complete across Alliance-affiliated factories, including 90 percent of items most critical to life safety.
New investments and factory closure
During the last four years, 93 new units were launched and 83 units faced closure on average every year, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
RMG entrepreneurs set up 374 new units in the last four years while 332 units faced closure. Most units have been set up by entrepreneurs already in the business for a long period of time, and the rest by fresh investors.
With the continuous change of technology in all spheres of industrialisation, RMG factories also brought about significant changes in the technologies they use.
Almost all factories are now using upgraded technologies and machinery to boost efficiency and reduce production costs.
Some textile and spinning industries have started using modern robotics technologies to boost productivity, deliver products on time and meet demand for finer products from global retailers and brands.
Most of the sweater industries have upgraded themselves to an automated system instead of a manual knitting system, with other factories too going for an upgrading of their technologies. Such modern technologies have come at a cost, through taking over most jobs usually done by female workers. Entrepreneurs have been more interested in installing the machines.
Some denim garment factories are using laser machines to make fashionable holes or distress in jeans. In the past, those tasks were done manually.
Chemical use and consumption of water have reduced drastically during the last decade, ensuring environment-friendly production. Entrepreneurs are now focusing on using less water for dyeing and washing, which will be the future of the apparel industries with regard to sustainability.
Owing to technological changes, a major change came into the male-female worker ratio. If ten years ago, more than 80 percent of workers were female, today the figure has declined to 60 percent.
"We are in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution where smart technologies and processes will determine future competitiveness. While we cannot ignore the value and importance of machines, we should rather focus on re-skilling and up-skilling our workforce to enable an adoption of modern technologies," according to Rubana Huq, President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
"We need more initiatives to train people not only for the RMG industry, but also for other potential sectors that can add higher value and create employment opportunities," she said.
"We should support start-ups in every sector of the economy to allow more innovation and let industries have access to low-cost local solutions. For the upcoming decades, our priority should be skills innovation which will ultimately shape the future of our economy," Rubana Huq added.
Lagging behind in efficiency, product and market diversification
Bangladeshi apparel makers are still lagging behind in production efficiency despite their more than 40 years of experience in the industry.
Bangladeshi workers' efficiency level is below 50 percent. In Sri Lanka, the normal efficiency level is more than 70 percent.
Most of the apparel manufacturers do not have product development units, a reason why they are losing the advantage in price negotiations. High fashion products require product development from the manufacturers' side.
Bangladesh's RMG sector has for a long time concentrated on almost 75 percent capacity in the production of only five basic garment items. Exporters have boosted their dependence on mainly cotton items, which is also beyond the proportion of global cotton vs non-cotton clothing consumption.
Over the last ten years, some entrepreneurs have been investing in high-value items such as suits and blazers, jackets and outer garments, sportswear and lingerie.
Moreover, the European Union, the US and Canada remain major export destinations for Bangladeshi apparels. The non-traditional markets have seen another major growth, to about $6 billion apparel exports in the last fiscal year.
The markets include Japan, Australia, China, Russia, India, Brazil, Chile, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey.
Of these countries, Japan has grown as a major export destination, buying over $1 billion worth of Bangladeshi apparels. Thanks to its state policy "China plus one", undertaken in 2008, it has reduced its dependence on China. Bangladesh enjoys zero-duty benefits in the Japanese market as a least developed country.
Bangladesh has the potential to boost its export shares in Japan, a country with a $45 billion garment market.
Bangladesh's apparel exportd to China grew by 860 percent in the last 10 years, amounting to $506.51 million. It can be the next big destination for Bangladeshi apparel exporters.
Since 2011, Bangladesh has been enjoying duty-free benefit for apparel export to India, with exports fetching about 80 percent growth year-on-year, reaching $499.09 million in the last fiscal year.
As new markets, Australia and Russia also imported apparel items worth $720 million and $488.58 million respectively in the last fiscal year.
The good thing is that industry insiders are well aware of the need to deal with the growing challenges the apparel sector happens to be going through.
Product diversification is a must as per capita income is increasing with the growth of the national economy. The RMG sector will not be able to compete on low-end items.
Investment in technologies is one of the strategic approaches for the sector to improve efficiency, shorten lead time and reduce carbon footprints.
The industry needs to focus seriously on investments in diversified items, especially in non-cotton and ladies' garments, and in exploring new markets.
Special policy support from the government, industry insiders think, to incentivise diversification of products and materials (non-cotton) could be the most vital force in bringing about a change in direction for the industry.
Measures are required to monitor capacity expansion within the industry, and at the same time train entrepreneurs or mid-level professionals in making them aware of opportunities in the global market and the means of pursuing such opportunities.