Vietnam surpasses Bangladesh as second biggest garment exporter

A cleaner wearing protective gear sprays disinfectant at a readymade garment factory in Dhaka's Mirpur amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Asif Mahmud Ove
Bangladesh has lost its crown as the second largest clothing exporter to Vietnam, according to the latest data from the World Trade Organization.

Vietnam sold $29 billion worth of apparel merchandise to the world in 2020, while Bangladesh’s garment exports were valued at $28 billion, the latest World Trade Statistical Review shows.

Consequently, Bangladesh’s share in global garment exports slipped to 6.3 percent in 2020 from 6.8 percent a year earlier. On the other hand, Vietnam’s share improved to 6.4 percent from 6.2 percent.

Garment shipments by both nations, however, declined in 2020 due to the COVID-19. But Bangladesh's fall was at a faster pace than Vietnam's.

At the same time, Bangladesh's export performance shows its resilience against pandemic effects.

“Trade began to recover as of mid-2020, but the effects of COVID-19 have varied significantly across countries and regions. In volume terms, which strip out the effects of fluctuating prices, Asia’s merchandise trade was down by only 0.5 percent in 2020, compared to the global decline of 5.3 percent,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in the report.

As importers began diverting orders from China at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic early last year, the Southeast Asian nation quickly grabbed the opportunity with strong control on the outbreak in the country.

It reported the first death from COVID-19 on Jul 31, 2020 when Bangladesh just began easing restrictions after the first round of its pandemic lockdown.

China, however, was still the largest exporter of apparel despite a 7 percent year-on-year drop to $142 billion, or 31.6 of the global total.

Bangladesh overtook Turkey as the second largest apparel exporter in 2010 with 4.2 percent contribution to global garment exports. India was fourth on the list at that time with 3.9 percent share of the market while Vietnam had 2.9 percent.

Garment exporters had not been much worried over falling behind their peers in Vietnam in overseas sales last year.

They had dreamt of having an ‘opportunity’ to have a bigger market share in the United States, as China, which dominates the US market, is having a ‘trade war’ with it.

They had hoped exports would rebound by December, buoyed by demand in the Western world ahead of Christmas, but that did not happen as a second wave of infections gripped the US and Europe by that time.

Besides the pandemic affecting Vietnam less than it did to Bangladesh, the Southeast Asian nation had two more advantages, according to Faruque Hassan, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA.

Vietnam is making its position stronger by producing non-cotton manmade fibre, and it has preferential trade with the US due to historic reasons, he said. 

The BGMEA president, however, still thinks they do not have to worry about Vietnam overtaking Bangladesh in apparel export. “I hope Bangladesh will soon regain its position.” 

Vietnam has been able to cut the lead time with infrastructural development, said Fazlee Shamim Ehsan, vice-president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association. “They have progressed much in diversifying products. And they also have duty-free access to the US market.” 

But when things have gotten better in the West now with faster vaccination drives, Bangladesh is experiencing the worst phase of the pandemic with deadly coronavirus cases rising at a record pace, forcing the government to close factories in a lockdown dubbed the “strictest yet”.

The factories, however, have been allowed to reopen on Sunday amid the lockdown, forcing the workers to return to Dhaka, Narayanganj and Gazipur from their home villages and towns, where they went to celebrate Eid-ul-Azha and spend the lockdown with their relatives.

With the public transportation system shut, they are travelling hundreds of kilometres in overcrowded ferries or small passenger vehicles by paying exuberant fare.

After seeing their sufferings throughout the day, the government on Saturday night allowed bus and launch services to resume to transport the workers to Dhaka.              

Around 35 to 40 percent of annual exports are made during this period, according to garment industry entrepreneurs.

“The orders from Western markets for the winter season and Christmas are almost ready for shipment. However, the products will go unsold unless they are delivered soon,” BGMEA Vice-President Shahidullah Azim said last week.