Elections are fast approaching. Earlier in May this year, the United States unveiled a new visa policy for Bangladesh. The policy said it would deny visas to individuals, from law enforcers to political leaders, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.
On Friday, the US enforced visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals – who and their immediate family members can be barred from entering the US, according to a press statement issued by the US Department of State on 22 September.
The Business Standard reached out to businessmen for their take on visa restrictions imposed by the United States on Bangladeshi passport holders and their probable impact on business and trade.
'The restrictions are not on any item or country'
Faruque Hassan, President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)
If the US government imposes visa restriction on any individual businessman, it will be an individual case. I don't know whether any individual businessman is included in the list or will be included in the list.
But I don't think the visa restriction will have an impact on the overall RMG export. The share of RMG exports stands at 85% out of the total exports from the country. Noteworthy is that out of the total exports to the US, 92% is RMG products.
Our ready-made garment is very important to them. We export RMG products worth $10 billion to the US.
The visa restriction, from what I understand, is on individuals – it is not on any item, it is not on any country. Therefore, I don't think that it will create any problems in the overall [RMG] business.
As RMG exporters, there are two issues involved with us. One is the reform of the labour law. We are working on the issue. The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) holds meetings with the government on a regular basis.
But for the first time, they came to the BGMEA. We have told them that the work on labour reform is ongoing. The government is working on labour reform and we are cooperating with the government.
We told them that the labour reforms that they wanted will happen. They want us to adopt the labour reforms by November. I think the government might be able to bring about the reforms by then – which encompass labour rights and human rights.
Secondly, they also talk about the wages of the garment workers. They asked us what we are doing to increase the wages of the RMG workers. We said that we are working on raising the wages.
We have asked the government to implement the minimum wage for the RMG workers. Besides, an independent board has already been formed. The wage in the garment sector will be increased by the end of this year.
'Visa restrictions are not sanctions'
Sameer Sattar, President, Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI)
In my opinion, those who are individually subject to visa restrictions should worry about their businesses. Ordinary businessmen have no relation to this – they will continue their business.
The people on visa restrictions, if they have any business, might face inconvenience because they will not be able to commute. This will obviously have a negative impact on them.
How? Suppose you are a businessman who has business in the United States. When you are subject to a visa restriction, can you come and go? Can you meet the buyers? You cannot. They will have to come to you if they still want to do business with you.
This will create an inconvenience, though you will not go out of business because visa restriction is not like sanction. Visa restrictions will cause problems in travelling. For that matter, be it any country - whether the US, the EU, Thailand or Turkey - imposition of visa restrictions is an inconvenience since it creates a problem with travel.
But again, this will only have an impact on the person subject to restriction, not all businessmen. And as things stand now, I don't see any impact on ordinary businesses.
Also, as far as I know, the restriction is targeting a certain category of people. When these certain groups of people meet the condition of visa restriction, they will face it. Aside from them, there is no scope to see this tool as subject to others in general, because it doesn't have the scope to be taken in a broader sense.
I cannot say about [what happens] tomorrow, though.
The United States, however, is a sensible country. A team from the US-Bangladesh Business Council recently visited Bangladesh. Recently, a programme of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh (Am-Cham) was organised at Westin. When I talked with a member of their commercial team, they were very positive about Bangladesh.
I believe businessmen don't have reasons to worry yet because this is the private sector. The categories for visa restrictions they mentioned, I think, there is little chance for the private sector to fall under them.
But yes, we have reason to worry about the overall inflation because of the Ukraine-Russia war, and depression in overall [RMG] orders.
'The restrictions are related to politics and elections, not business'
Abul Kasem Khan, former president of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI)
As far as I can understand, visa restriction will not impact business, because it is related to politics. It is about diplomatic and political issues. Business and politics are two separate things. What the US government is doing is based on political issues. I am confident that it will not have an impact on business.
This is the first time that Bangladesh is facing such visa restrictions. We are trying to understand the situation. If our business suffers from any impact at all, the reasons could be something other than visa restrictions.
Businesses are totally out of this process or procedure of [visa restriction]; it is related to the elections. Businesses are not related to elections. The diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and the US are totally different from those of Russia and US relations.
The US government has adopted the visa restriction policy solely centred on the elections. We do not have any relation with politics. We are businessmen and we remain busy with exports and imports. From this perspective, I believe businessmen do not fall under the category [that would make us eligible] for visa restrictions.
Yesterday, I heard Salman F Rahman, [the prime minister's Private Industry and Investment Adviser] in the news say that visa restrictions will not affect our business and trade. If anyone does business with a political affiliation, that is different; but those who do business and have no relations with politics and elections, have nothing to worry about.
Bangladesh is now a global player in terms of RMG or economy. We have come a long way and are now interconnected with the global world. The US always stands by us. They are one of the biggest investors in Bangladesh. We are importing cotton and some days back, we purchased a commercial aircraft, Boeing. The relationship is improving day by day.
I am not worried about the visa restrictions because it is totally an election-centric move and it is new to us. What we want is for Bangladesh to make progress, peacefully, and solve the political crisis. Business will go on its own way.
I am more worried about the internal economic crisis. For example, the shortage of dollars and the uptick in dollar prices.