DHAKA – Back in March and April of this year, when orders for ready-made garments (RMG) from Bangladesh ground to a virtual halt, there was a genuine concern within the industry that the garment industry in Bangladesh was facing an existential threat.
At that time, we canvased opinion from several industry insiders, asking them, realistically, how much of Bangladesh’s RMG industry might disappear never to return in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The consensus appeared to be around 50 per cent – as a minimum. Perhaps such estimates reflected the general mood at the time (around May/June), when there was no sight of a vaccine for coronavirus on the horizon. They also gave an indicate of what many have been saying about Bangladesh for several years, namely that it has serious over-capacity in its garment industry. It needs to adapt, evolve and diversify into new areas beyond staples such as T-shirts and joggers.
Against this backdrop, we recently caught up with Mostafiz Uddin, owner of Denim Expert – a business that found itself caught right in the eye of the storm as brands began cancelling orders from Bangladesh in their droves back in March.
Asked to take us back to that time, Uddin tells us: “Everything felt broken. I felt broken! As a business owner I am used to working long hours and not having much rest, but this was something very different.
“My business has taken a decade to build from scratch but it was crumbling before my eyes. The problem was a lack of cash. I needed cash to pay workers, to pay bills but, just as importantly, to fulfil orders. If I could not fulfil orders, there would be no cash coming in and the whole problem would become a vicious circle.
“At times, I could not see a way out, either for my own business or for the broader RMG industry of Bangladesh.”
As well as cancelling orders in huge quantities, many brands were refusing to honour payment for those orders, even when they were in production, or completed (and in some cases, had been shipped or were waiting at the ports of Dhaka and Chittagong).
It was around this time that the BBC got in touch with Uddin and decided to document his experiences, warts and all, for a programmed called Bangladesh: The End of Fast Fashion.
The nature of television means that the footage and interviews they shot at that time were only very recently broadcast, on 30 October.
It’s painful viewing for Mostafiz to view now but, looking back on the footage of that programme, he acknowledges that the BBC have “captured very well a significant moment in time for our industry.”
He says: “They focus on my own experience but I have no doubt that what I went through was replicated right across the RMG industry of Bangladesh. It was a dreadful period, and there is no doubt the experiences of 2020 generally have shaken the RMG industry of Bangladesh to its core.”
A big worry for all producers in Bangladesh is that, unlike other garment producing countries, there is so much riding on this for Bangladesh. Uniquely, almost 90 per cent of exports from Bangladesh are from the RMG sector. If that fails, there are grave implications for Bangladesh and its people.
For Uddin, the worry about having to potentially let workers go has led to many sleepless nights.
He tells us: “Right through this pandemic, and in the dark days of spring and summer, my concern has always been for my workers. My workers have become like family to me over the years. I know implications of being without a job in Bangladesh – destitution and severe poverty. I know many garment workers in Bangladesh fear poverty far more than the coronavirus, for poverty has a far greater chance of killing them.”
Uddin tells us the “weight of responsibility on me has felt huge these past months. The loss of a job can almost feel like a death sentence for some workers.”
So, what now? Although suggests that while business has stabilised, nobody is yet through the crisis. As I write, orders are once again being placed on hold as key markets for Uddin – the EU and US – experience second waves of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are not out of the woods yet, by any mean,” he says.
That said, he believes the breakthrough of vaccines holds great promise and holds out hope that 2021 will be “far better than 2020 and that we will get back to something like usual trading levels.”
Uddin tells us many in the industry have contacted since the BBC documentary was aired, concerned about his company – and not realising the footage is more than half a year old.
He explains: “I look back on that BBC documentary and it feels like I am watching somebody else at times. I was in a different place then, and so was my business. It was a terrible time, but I always kept the faith, even when selling my house to raise funds and in my endless trips to the bank to extend our credit facility.
“We survived, that’s the bottom line, and we are a stronger, more resilient business for it. I cannot imagine there has ever been a one-off economic shock to compare with the impact of the coronavirus. Our industry was, literally, switched off overnight. There was nothing to prepare for it and this was a situation which was without precedent. All of us were making it up as we went along.
“To come through that – and come through it with all my workers! – is immensely gratifying. It is my proudest achievement, by far.”
When we ask Uddin what he has learned in the past few months, he suggests we should not yet get ahead of ourselves, with the ramifications of this pandemic yet to play out.
“The RMG industry in Bangladesh will survive but it will be a different animal in future,” he says. “There was over-capacity before this pandemic, and that remains the case. Only the fit – and, I believe, the sustainably focused – will survive moving forwards.”
Uddin’s became one of the loudest voices when brands were cancelling orders back in spring. He was one of the few suppliers to stick his head above the parapet and call brands out. The fear of reprisals from brands among his contemporaries was too great (and who can blame them?)
He says: “I have been more vocal than most in calling out unethical behaviour from brands, and I will continue to be so. If we want a fairer, more equitable industry, there can be no hiding place for those who treat their suppliers unfairly and unethically.
“I like to think I have retained my integrity and honesty in a cut-throat industry. I have tried to do the right thing at all times, to make the correct calls. I believe this approach has served my business well.”
He adds: “But also understand that many brands have been incredibly supportive these past few months. They have bent over backwards to support suppliers and ensure we all get through this pandemic together. These brands recognise that without good suppliers, they are nothing. As well as being ethical, there actions are smart and demonstrate sensible business practice.”