There seems to be no end to the woes of the garment exporters in Bangladesh! After a prolonged lull when export is slowly but surely rebounding now — Bangladesh’s exports in September fetched US $ 4.16 billion, the highest single-month receipts, riding on a spectacular performance by the apparel sector. The export earnings in September of the current financial year of 2021-22 grew by 38 per cent or US $ 1.14 billion year-on-year from US $ 3.01 billion in the same month of the past fiscal year, according to the Export Promotion Bureau data even as apparel exports in September 2021 increased by 41.66 per cent or more than US $ 1 billion to US $ 3.42 billion from US $ 2.41 billion in the same month of 2020 — the garment makers are now faced with a new issue and this time it’s not the container congestion at the Chittagong or the other transhipments ports, rather this time around it’s the unlikely venue of Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (HSIA).
One might wonder if bulk of apparel exports take place through the Chittagong Port, how do HSIA come into the equation. The answer to it is even as issues with the transhipment ports are yet to get sorted out completely and brands and retailers in the West are in mad rush to catch up with the upcoming festival season, they are not in a mood to take chances and are thus increasingly pressing for air shipment of cargoes so that they have stock enough to cash on the opportunities during the festive season. After all they are also looking to make the most of the upcoming festival season after the dismal show of last almost couple of years due to the pandemic-induced restrictions and lockdowns.
To start with, first it was the cargo village at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport which failed to accommodate the rising volume of export-bound goods, piling up losses on suppliers as they struggled to ship merchandise on time.
According to media reports, the cargo village at HSIA has a daily storage capacity of 400 tonnes of dry cargo, way lower than 1,200 tonnes arriving at the country’s largest airport to be shipped through national and international airlines even as about 800 tonnes of goods were said to be exported through the air routes every day and due to the space crisis, exporters were forced to store goods outside of the village, where they were left unattended.
“During normal times, we can smoothly ship around 400 tonnes of cargoes. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the capacity has shrunk due to suspension of many flights,” maintained the Managing Director of a chartered flight operator of cargoes from the HSIA, on the condition of anonymity even as almost three years ago, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) built a shed at the cargo village, which was said to be congested and overflowing with export cargoes.
The situation is not improving, claimed BGMEA Vice-President Shahidullah Azim speaking to the media, adding, of the cargoes transported by airlines, 85 per cent are garment items while M Mafidur Rahman, Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh, on his part added that a separate cargo village was under construction at the HSIA, having 63,000 square metres of areas for storing export-bound and imported cargoes.
“By the end of 2025, the new cargo village will go into operations,” claimed Mafidur while underlining the expansion will increase the airport’s annual cargo handling capacity from 200,000 tonnes to 500,000 tonnes.
So, till then, space crunch seemingly would persist!
However, it is not only the space crunch that the exporters are having to deal with; there’s also the nagging issue with the Explosive Detective System (EDS), meant for scanning the cargoes.
This led the BGMEA to urge the Government to take immediate steps to fix the inoperative EDS at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport even as they also called for increasing the number of scanners to speed up the process of scanning export cargoes and regular maintenance of the EDS in order to keep them operational.
The trade body leaders also requested the authorities to ensure enough space at the scanning area so that export cargoes could be scanned in an orderly manner and shipped timely while also calling for a spacious parking lot to keep the export freight after scanning for air shipment and requested to keep the apparel goods inside the cargo village or under a canopy.
However, with things showing little signs of improvement, it was now time for Salman F Rahman, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Private Industry and Investment to pay a surprise visit to the Dhaka airport to take stock of things in person.
Expressing his disappointment at the lack of and malfunctioning of EDS, he said major European buyers, especially Inditex Group, C&A and H&M, had complained of not getting their products on time while also adding that the domestic traders had also made the same complaints.
As per reports, Salman F Rahman decided to visit the Airport Cargo Village in presence of the officials of Biman Bangladesh Airlines, HSIA and leaders of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), after which, Salman told the reporters that after inspection it was clear that due to negligence of the authorities in fixing the machines, exports were being hampered and added that a meeting will be held soon with the Aviation Ministry and its Secretary to hold them accountable.
Underlining exports were the lifeline of the country’s economy, he said that the matter would be taken seriously even as the PM’s Adviser after entering the Cargo Village, expressed displeasure at the cargoes lying there awaiting clearance.
“We are going to be a middle-income country. Why is the situation here like this? It is a matter of great shame. You [the authorities] will not improve the system and nor will you allow others to do so,” reportedly maintained Salman F Rahman while adding that four EDS machines at the cargo village had been damaged while underlining that two were in operation earlier, but one had been shut for six months, while the other had malfunctioned lately even if the needed spare parts were not available at the time while the remaining two machines had been installed six months ago, but they were yet to be validated by the company which installed it.
Salman asked why the machines installed in March were yet to be in operation and when being told that it was due to the pandemic, he maintained, “I am very disappointed. If the validation is done next October, it will be possible to launch the new machines in the first week of November. And the old machines have to be fit for operation in the next seven days.”
He said that due to the delays stemming from the malfunctioning machines, export was being hampered despite there being an opportunity.
“The image of the country is being ruined. The biggest problem in the private sector now is the issue of exports from Dhaka airport,” Salman rued even as he highlighted the growing opportunities for export, when he said, “Now we have a big opportunity. China has shut down the textile industry due to power shortages… also Vietnam’s factories had been shuttered due to the pandemic. This is the time for getting lots of orders. If you can’t fix the problems at the airport, there will be no extra business opportunities.”
Meanwhile, freight forwarders reportedly maintained that 85 per cent of the goods that Dhaka airport handles are readymade garments but added Dhaka airport has lost its handling capacity due to the absence of scheduled flights, failure in the EDS and ongoing construction work of the third terminal.
Speaking to the media, Bangladesh Freight Forwarders Association (BAFFA) President Kabir Ahmed, earlier said, “It is the peak time for apparel export but an explosive detection system machine has been out of order for a long time; another one was shut down after a period of work. But explosive detection scanning is mandatory for export to European Union countries.”
Given the turn of events, one can very well imagine the woes of the garment makers and can only hope now that the Adviser to the Prime Minister on Private Industry and Investment pays a surprise visit to the Dhaka airport to take stock of things while also expressing his displeasure at the authorities concerned for the sorry state of affairs, things will improve for the better soon.