Bangladesh, once poor and irrelevant to the global economy, is now an export powerhouse, second only to China in global apparel exports, as factories churn out clothing for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and H&M. Global retailers like Target and Walmart now operate sourcing offices in Dhaka, the capital. Garments are critical to Bangladeshâ€™s economy, accounting for 80 percent of manufacturing exports and more than three million jobs.
But with â€œMade in Bangladeshâ€ labels now commonplace in American stores, Bangladeshâ€™s manufacturing formula depends on its having the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month. During the past two years, as workers have seen their meager earnings eroded by double-digit inflation, protests and violent clashes with the police have become increasingly common.
In response, Bangladeshi leaders have deployed the security tools of the state to keep factories humming. A high-level government committee monitors the garment sector and includes ranking officers from the military, the police and intelligence agencies. A new special police force patrols many industrial areas. Domestic intelligence agencies keep an eye on some labor organizers.
â€œThe garment industry is No. 1 for exports and dollars for the country,â€ said Alonzo Suson, who runs the Solidarity Center in Dhaka, an A.F.L.-C.I.O.-affiliated labor rights group. â€œAny slowdown of that development is a national security issue.â€
For global brands, which are forever chasing the cheapest labor costs from country to country, Bangladesh has been a hot spot, especially as wages have risen in China. McKinsey, the consulting giant, has called Bangladesh the â€œnext Chinaâ€ and predicted that Bangladeshi garment exports, now about $18 billion a year, could triple by 2020.