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Child Labor Rules Don't Ease Burden in Bangladesh

A garment industry group implemented reforms at U.S. urging. But a drop in American demand and Bush administration trade policies have dealt setbacks.

May 04, 2003|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Three years ago, when Salma was 11, she worked in a Dhaka factory from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week. She was a runner, trimming thread and shuttling bundles of sewn cloth. She made $9 a month.

Today, the soft-spoken teenager is learning to read and write. Her parents are unhappy that she isn't bringing home wages, but they let her attend school because her teacher promised to help her find work soon that pays more than she earned at the factory.

"I hope to get a job making televisions," said Salma, sitting on the floor of a tidy, one-room schoolhouse where she and her classmates, a swarm of colorful saris and T-shirts, attended to their math workbooks.

Salma's climb from child laborer to dutiful student is a tribute to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Assn., which pledged eight years ago to remove children younger than 14 from factory floors.

Under the association's program, designed in 1995 at the urging of the United States, the apparel industry has all but wiped out child labor. What's more, garment makers have sent nearly 10,000 children who once toiled in their factories to school, a considerable accomplishment in a country in which 35% don't make it past primary grades.

But to many people here, the program doesn't feel like much of a success.

Although the garment industry satisfied U.S. demands for reform, the United States is buying fewer clothes from Bangladesh, which depends on apparel exports for three-fourths of its vital foreign-exchange dollars.

What's more, the Bush administration this year added the predominantly Muslim country to its list of 34 nations whose citizens must navigate a rigorous visa application process in a program aimed at combating terrorism. That makes it difficult for businesspeople to visit customers and attend trade shows in the United States, the second-biggest buyer of Bangladeshi apparel after the European Union.

Politicians and businesspeople in the South Asian nation are bewildered -- or suspect the worst: that the U.S. foreign policy establishment, focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, simply has forgotten about them.

"On child labor, Bangladesh responded in a major way; it was not window dressing," said Zulfiquar Rahman, managing director of Greenland Garments Ltd., which recently invested $1.4 million in a factory that produces clothing for several large European firms.

"In this case, we did get off our backsides and made things work, and I do not think it has been reciprocated."

Farooq Sobhan, a former top Bangladeshi official who teaches at George Washington University, said his countrymen watched the war in Iraq with particular interest.

"There's a lot of talk about rebuilding Iraq and making it into a functioning democracy," Sobhan said. "What about helping those countries which are already doing well to ensure that they remain democracies?"

Bangladesh has been a struggling democracy since 1971, when the Bengali-speaking portion of Pakistan launched a successful revolt against the Pakistani army. The small country on the Bay of Bengal, one of the most densely populated regions in the world, has been prone to disasters and always desperately poor, with 34% of its population living below the poverty line.

And now the apparel industry, which employs 1.5 million of the country's 133 million people, is in trouble: Exports have been eroded by the global economic downturn, the rise of China as a garment manufacturer and, most stingingly, changing U.S. trade policies.

The United States buys about 40% of the $4.5 billion in apparel exported by Bangladesh, helping to turn the country into one of the world's largest producers of men's dress shirts and khaki pants.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. retailers reduced their orders, and today they are paying 30% to 50% less for shirts, slacks and other items, as weak global demand has driven down prices. The consequence: Companies in Bangladesh have eliminated 300,000 jobs and closed 1,200 factories, most of them in Dhaka and Chittagong, the major port.

But more than economic fundamentals are hurting Bangladeshi apparel companies. In 2002, the United States began giving special trade preferences to African, Andean and Caribbean apparel manufacturers. A U.S. company that buys a pair of slacks or a blouse from Bangladesh pays a tariff that is 8% to 30% higher than if it came from, say, Uganda or Peru.

The U.S. government says Bangladesh is such a world-class apparel producer that it doesn't need special treatment. That's hardly solace to the leaders of a country in which at least 35% of adults are unemployed and the per-capita annual income of $370 is one of the lowest in the world.

Demise of Child Labor

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