Bangladesh is the most densely populated non-city-state country in the world, with the eighth largest population (over 165 million) within a territory the size of Iowa. Bangladesh is situated in the northeastern corner of the Indian subcontinent, sharing a 4,100 km border with India and a 247-kilometer border with Burma. With sustained economic growth over the past decade, a large, young, and hard-working workforce, strategic location between the large South and Southeast Asian markets, and vibrant private sector, Bangladesh will likely continue to attract increasing investment, despite severe economic headwinds created by the global outbreak of COVID-19.
Buoyed by a young workforce and a growing consumer base, Bangladesh has enjoyed consistent annual GDP growth of more than six percent over the past decade, with the exception of the COVID-induced economic slowdown in 2020. Much of this growth continues to be driven by the ready-made garment (RMG) industry, which exported $35.81 billion of apparel products in fiscal year (FY) 2021, second only to China, and continued remittance inflows, reaching a record $24.77 billion in FY 2021. (Note: The Bangladeshi fiscal year is from July 1 to June 30; fiscal year 2021 ended on June 30, 2021.) The country’s RMG exports increased more than 30 percent year-over-year in FY 2021 as the global demand for apparel products accelerated after the COVID shock.
The Government of Bangladesh (GOB) actively seeks foreign investment. Sectors with active investments from overseas include agribusiness, garment/textiles, leather/leather goods, light manufacturing, power and energy, electronics, light engineering, information and communications technology (ICT), plastic, healthcare, medical equipment, pharmaceutical, ship building, and infrastructure. The GOB offers a range of investment incentives under its industrial policy and export-oriented growth strategy with few formal distinctions between foreign and domestic private investors.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) stock was $20.87 billion through the end of September 2021, with the United States being the top investing country with $4.1 billion in accumulated investments. Bangladesh received $2.56 billion FDI in 2020, according to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The rate of FDI inflows was only 0.77 percent of GDP, one of the lowest of rates in Asia.
Bangladesh has made gradual progress in reducing some constraints on investment, including taking steps to better ensure reliable electricity, but inadequate infrastructure, limited financing instruments, bureaucratic delays, lax enforcement of labor laws, and corruption continue to hinder foreign investment. Government efforts to improve the business environment in recent years show promise but implementation has yet to materialize. Slow adoption of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and sluggish judicial processes impede the enforcement of contracts and the resolution of business disputes.
As a traditionally moderate, secular, peaceful, and stable country, Bangladesh experienced a decrease in terrorist activity in recent years, accompanied by an increase in terrorism-related investigations and arrests following the Holey Artisan Bakery terrorist attack in 2016. A December 2018 national election marred by irregularities, violence, and intimidation consolidated the power of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling party, the Awami League. This allowed the government to adopt legislation and policies diminishing space for the political opposition, undermining judicial independence, and threatening freedom of the media and NGOs. Bangladesh continues to host one of the world’s largest refugee populations. According to UN High Commission for Refugees, more than 923,000 Rohingya from Burma were in Bangladesh as of February 2022. This humanitarian crisis will likely require notable financial and political support until a return to Burma in a voluntary and sustainable manner is possible. International retail brands selling Bangladesh-made products and the international community continue to press the Government of Bangladesh to meaningfully address worker rights and factory safety problems in Bangladesh. With unprecedented support from the international community and the private sector, the Bangladesh garment sector has made significant progress on fire and structural safety. Critical work remains on safeguarding workers’ rights to freely associate and bargain collectively, including in Export Processing Zones (EPZs).
The Bangladeshi government has limited resources devoted to intellectual property rights (IPR) protection and counterfeit goods are readily available in Bangladesh. Government policies in the ICT sector are still under development. Current policies grant the government broad powers to intervene in that sector.
Capital markets in Bangladesh are still developing, and the financial sector is still highly dependent on banks.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2021||147 of 180||http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview|
|Global Innovation Index||2021||116 of 129||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions)||2020||USD 723||https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|World Bank GNI per capita||2020||USD 2,030||http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD|
8. Responsible Business Conduct
The business community is increasingly aware of and engaged in responsible business conduct (RBC) activities with multinational firms leading the way. While many firms in Bangladesh fall short on RBC activities and instead often focus on philanthropic giving, some of the leading local conglomerates have begun to incorporate increasingly rigorous environmental and safety standards in their workplaces. U.S. companies present in Bangladesh maintain diverse RBC activities. Consumers in Bangladesh are generally less aware of RBC, and consumers and shareholders exert little pressure on companies to engage in RBC activities.
While many international firms are aware of OECD guidelines and international best practices concerning RBC, many local firms have limited familiarity with international standards. There are currently two RBC NGOs active in Bangladesh:
- CSR Bangladesh:
- CSR Centre Bangladesh:
Along with the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, the CSR Centre is the joint focal point for the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and its corporate social responsibility principles in Bangladesh. The UN Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate citizenship and sustainability initiative. The Centre is a member of a regional RBC platform called the South Asian Network on Sustainability and Responsibility, with members including Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
While several NGOs have proposed National Corporate Social Responsibility Guidelines, the government has yet to adopt any such standards for RBC. As a result, the government encourages enterprises to follow generally accepted RBC principles but does not mandate any specific guidelines.
Bangladesh has natural resources, but it has not joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The country does not adhere to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
Department of State
- Country Reports on Human Rights Practices;
- Trafficking in Persons Report;
- Guidance on Implementing the “UN Guiding Principles” for Transactions Linked to Foreign Government End-Users for Products or Services with Surveillance Capabilities;
- U.S. National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises; and;
- Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory
Department of the Treasury
Department of Labor
Bangladesh is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. The government established the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) to address the adverse effects of climate change. In this plan, 44 programs under six thematic areas were identified. The Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund (BCCTF) was created in 2010 from the Government’s own revenue sources to combat climate change impacts as well as to implement the BCCSAP. The BCCTF has funded $449.3M in approximately 800 projects to implement key aspects of the BCCSAP. Taking into account the challenges of environment, environment and biodiversity conservation and management, the government has finalized the National Environment Policy 2018 and published it in 2019 with the aim of developing the overall environmental conservation management of the country. The Department of Environment, under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has adopted a “blue-economy” action plan to conserve marine environment, prevent marine pollution, ensure environmental management, and conserve marine and coastal biodiversity while ensuring marine resource extraction and mainstream development activities.
Bangladesh aims to reach 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 and at least 40 percent by 2041. Bangladesh launched the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan (MCPP) in November 2021. The MCPP is built on the foundation of the Eighth Five Year Plan (2021-2025) and shifts Bangladesh’s trajectory from one of vulnerability to resilience and then prosperity. The plan highlights engagement with domestic implementation partners including the Public Private Partnership (PPP) Authority and the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA). The MCPP expects investment opportunities of approximately $80 billion in resilient projects in energy, water, transport, supply chains and value chains. Optimized finance structures to attract FDI and mobilize domestic private sector capital include the use of public private partnerships as a key solution to climate investment with the PPP Authority. The Bangladesh Bank can use different tools to incentivize investment in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure.
The MCPP further outlines opportunities for technology-transfer partnerships and building manufacturing capacity in Bangladesh including in areas such as green hydrogen, solar, electric vehicles, modernized power grid and other resilient infrastructure.
According to a BloombergNEF’s Climatescope report, in 2021 Bangladesh ranked 24 among 109 countries as an emerging attractive market for energy transition investment. Bangladesh ranks 69th in the MIT Technology Review’s Green Future Index. The overall ranking shows the performance of the economies relative to each other and aggregates scores generated across the following five pillars: carbon emissions, energy transition, green society, clean innovation and climate policy. In the Global Green Growth Institute’s Global Green Growth Index, Bangladesh Ranked 18th among 33 Asian countries. This index measures sustainability targets for four green growth dimensions – efficient and sustainable resource use, natural capital protection, green economic opportunities, and social inclusion.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
Bangladesh’s comparative advantage in cheap labor for manufacturing is partially offset by lower productivity due to poor skills development, inefficient management, pervasive corruption, and inadequate infrastructure. According to the 2016-2017 Labor Force Survey, 85 percent of the Bangladeshi labor force is employed in the informal economy. Bangladeshi workers have a strong reputation for hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, and a positive and optimistic attitude. With an average age of 26 years, the country boasts one of the largest and youngest labor forces in the world. However, training is not well aligned with labor demand. Bangladesh’s labor laws specify acceptable employment conditions, working hours, minimum wage levels, leave policies, health and sanitary conditions, and compensation for injured workers. Freedom of association and the right to join unions are guaranteed in the constitution. In practice, however, compliance and enforcement of labor laws are weak, and companies frequently discourage or prevent formation of worker-led labor unions, preferring pro-factory management unions. In a notable exception to the national labor law, Export Processing Zones (EPZs) do not allow trade unions and heavily restrict other labor activity normally permitted under the broader Bangladesh Labor Act. The EPZ labor law does allow worker welfare associations, to which 74 percent of workers belong, according to the government.
Since two back-to-back tragedies killed over 1,250 workers – the Tazreen Fashions fire in 2012 and the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 – Bangladesh made significant progress in garment factory fire and structural safety remediation, thanks mostly to two Western brand-led initiatives, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance), comprised of North American brands, and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord), which was formed by European brands. Major accidents and workplace deaths in the garment sector dropped precipitously as a result – only four workers died in 2021. Monitoring and remediation of RMG factories exporting to non-Western countries was overseen by the government, with assistance from the International Labor Organization (ILO) under the National Initiative. By 2021, fewer than half the factories under the National Initiative had completed initial remediation of safety issues, and both the Alliance and Accord had closed their Bangladesh operations. North American brands continued to monitor manufacturers’ safety maintenance and training through a new organization, Nirapon. The Accord, under High Court order, transitioned its staff and operations to the newly formed RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), overseen by a board consisting of manufacturers, brands, and worker representatives. The government has announced plans to form an Industrial Safety Unit to oversee factory safety in National Initiative garment factories as well as all manufacturing. On July 8, 2021, a devastating fire at the Hashem Foods Factory Ltd took the lives of 54 workers including 19 children. In the wake of the fire on July 15, the Prime Minister’s Office announced the formation of a 24-member national committee led by the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) and headed by the Prime Minister’s Private Sector Advisor Salman Rahman. The committee prioritized 32 industrial sectors considering their propensity for and likelihood of accidents. BIDA announced in December 2021 it would produce a sector-wide report after analyzing the inspection data and will take steps to enforce workplace safety compliance in the non-export sectors.
The U.S. government suspended Bangladesh’s access to the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) over labor rights violations following a six-year formal review conducted by the U.S. Trade Representative. The decision, announced in 2013 in the months following the Rana Plaza collapse, was accompanied by a 16-point GSP Action Plan to help start Bangladesh’s path to reinstatement of the trade benefits. While some progress was made in the intervening years, several key issues have not been adequately addressed. Despite revisions intended to make Bangladesh more compliant with international labor standards, the Bangladesh Labor Act (BLA) and EPZ Labor Act (ELA) still restrict the freedom of association and formation of unions and maintain separate administrative systems for workers inside and outside of export processing zones.
Under the current BLA, legally registered unions are entitled to submit charters of demands and bargain collectively with employers, but this has rarely occurred in practice. The government counts nearly 1,000 registered trade unions, but labor leaders estimate there are fewer than 100 active trade unions in the country’s dominant sector, RMG, and only 30 to 40 are capable enough to negotiate with owners. The law provides criminal penalties for conducting unfair labor practices such as retaliation against union members for exercising their legal rights, but charges are rarely brought against employers and the labor courts have a large backlog of cases. Labor organizations reported most workers did not exercise their rights to form unions, attend meetings, or bargain collectively due to fear of reprisal. From January to December 2021, a total of 6 workers died and 163 were injured due to police interference and about 137 of them belonged to the garment sector. The garment sector is reeling from the skilled labor crisis and missing opportunities to secure new orders from eager buyers coming to Bangladesh to procure garments after COVID-19-related factory closures in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma. The local apparel industry has long courted buyers who historically have sourced from other countries to buy from Bangladesh producers. However, in 2020, at the peak of Covid-19, Bangladesh apparel industries furloughed around 357,000 workers; following lockdown restrictions, the sector re-hired just a handful of the workers. Some of those furloughed returned to their villages and others switched to new professions. Industry groups are focusing on developing automation technologies and processes to boost productivity and increase production capacity.
The labor law differentiates between layoffs and terminations; no severance is paid if a worker is fired for misconduct. In the case of downsizing or “retrenchment,” workers must be notified and paid 30 days’ wages for each year of service. The law requires factories and establishments to notify Bangladesh’s Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments a week prior to temporarily laying off workers due to a shortage of work or material. Laid off workers are entitled to their full housing allowance. For the first 45 days, they are also entitled to half their basic wages, then 25 percent thereafter. Workers who were employed for less than one year are not eligible for compensation during a layoff. However, the press and trade unions report employers not only fail to pay workers their severance or benefits, but also their regular wages. In 2021 alone, workers and organizers staged 172 labor protests in the garment sector over back wages, factory layoffs, and demands to reopen closed factories. No unemployment insurance or other social safety net programs exist, although the government had begun discussing how to establish them with the help of development partners and brands. In early 2022, the Government of Bangladesh announced a universal pension scheme from fiscal year (FY) 2022-23.
The government does not consistently and effectively enforce applicable labor laws. For example, the law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court and workers in a collective bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. In practice, few strikers followed the cumbersome and time-consuming legal requirements for settlements and strikes or walkouts often occur spontaneously. The government was partnered with the ILO to introduce a dispute settlement system within its Department of Labor.
The BLA guarantees workers the right to conduct lawful strikes, but with many limitations. For example, the government may prohibit a strike deemed to pose a “serious hardship to the community” and may terminate any strike lasting more than 30 days. The BLA also prohibits strikes at factories in the first three years of commercial production, and at factories controlled by foreign investors.
The U.S. government funds efforts to improve occupational safety and health alongside labor rights in the readymade garment sector in partnership with other international partners, civil society, businesses, and the Bangladeshi government. The United States works with other governments and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to discuss and assist with additional labor reforms needed to fully comply with international labor conventions. In early 2021, the government submitted a draft action plan to the EU and ILO describing how it planned to bring its laws and practices into compliance with international labor standards over time. In February 2022, the government submitted the progress report to ILO and the report will be discussed in the ILO Governing Body on March 21. The U.S. government is closely monitoring the development and implementation of the plan to ensure it sufficiently addresses long-standing recommendations.