Episode 499: Richard Nixon, Kimchi And The First Clothing Factory In Bangladesh : Planet Money "We asked ourselves, 'What the hell do we want?'" Answer: "We need employment. We need dollars."
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Episode 499: Richard Nixon, Kimchi And The First Clothing Factory In Bangladesh

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Episode 499: Richard Nixon, Kimchi And The First Clothing Factory In Bangladesh

Episode 499: Richard Nixon, Kimchi And The First Clothing Factory In Bangladesh

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  • Transcript

ZOE CHACE, HOST:

So, Caitlin, we were recently in Bangladesh to see where the PLANET MONEY men's T-shirt was put together. And when we got there, it was immediately obvious, right? This was a company town.

CAITLIN KENNEY, HOST:

Oh, look, we're starting to see clothing companies - Caesar Apparels Limited. Oh, and then they have their clients underneath. It says Macy's, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Hanes, Beverly Hills Polo Club.

It's really amazing. You're driving around and all you can think is, this is where my clothes come from. There are tons of clothing factories in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and they all make clothing for the big box stores that we all know back home.

A hundred percent export-oriented industries.

CHACE: The city is built around the clothing industry. The sidewalk is filled up with biryani shops, cellphone kiosks, pharmacies, all these stores trying to sell things to the people who work inside the garment factories.

SALMAN SAYYID: All the people whom you're seeing in this area, they are all connected to the industry. Their life actually depends on this garments industry.

KENNEY: That's Salman Sayyid (ph), a local journalist who helped us in Bangladesh. And it's really hard to overstate the importance of this industry here. It touches everything. Around 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports are garments.

CHACE: Salman called it a tailor shop to the world. And what's sort of amazing is that everything we see here when we go down the street, it is actually the culmination of this dream. This one man's dream was this plan that he hatched back in the 1970s to rescue his country. When he closed his eyes, he pictured exactly this, thousands of factories, millions of people walking to work. And in order to make his dream come true, because, as you can see here, it has, this guy had help from an unlikely group of people - Richard Nixon, A, and B, a bunch of strangers who couldn't even stand the smell of him when they first met.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORLD IS YOURS")

NAS: (Rapping) It's yours. Whose world is this? The world is yours. The world is yours. It's mine, it's mine, it's mine. Whose world is this?

CHACE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Zoe Chace.

KENNEY: And I'm Caitlin Kenney. Our story starts back in 1971. Bangladesh was one of the poorest places on Earth. There was this devastating cyclone, a civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people died. There was a refugee crisis. It sparked the first Live Aid-style benefit concert ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)

GEORGE HARRISON: (Singing) Bangladesh, Bangladesh.

CHACE: OK, this is George Harrison, one of The Beatles. This is the theme song of The Concert for Bangladesh, summer of '71, Madison Square Garden - people like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton. And this was kind of how lots of Westerners were introduced to the country back when it began - as a disaster, a country that would never have its own economy and just live off foreign aid.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)

HARRISON: (Singing) Bangladesh, such a great disaster. I don't understand, but it sure looks like a mess.

KENNEY: Around this time, the main character in story, Abdul Majid Chowdhury, was looking at the situation in his home country and trying to come up with solutions. He was talking to his friends, trying to figure out what they could do to rebuild Bangladesh. And they decided what Bangladesh needs most of all is jobs for the people.

ABDUL MAJID CHOWDHURY: We need employment. We need dollar. We ask ourselves what the hell we want.

CHACE: This is Abdul Majid Chowdhury. He is an older guy now. He's bald-headed, he talks a mile a minute. His brother was what they call a freedom fighter. He died in the war for independence. And I met Chowdhury in this office building in Dhaka, the headquarters actually of a major garment maker there. Chowdhury and his friend, Noorul Quader, were determined to invest to build their country up. Quader passed away. He was a well-connected guy, worked in the Bangladeshi government.

But back when he and Chowdhury were dreaming up their country's future, they were starting from essentially zero. The country's main export was as low-tech as you can get in terms of a product, this plant material that's the main ingredient in burlap sacks called jute.

KENNEY: Chowdhury and Quader knew that they had to start small. They needed something that wouldn't take a lot of money to start up and something that could put a lot of people who didn't have a lot of skills to work quickly. So Chowdhury looked around the world, really. He went to factories in Europe, in India, looking for something to help his country. And eventually he found himself in a garment factory in Korea where everything was brand new to him.

CHOWDHURY: I am telling you this story because we didn't know - I did not know how many buttons I had in my shirt, but we did not know. I mean, that is the thing.

KENNEY: The company was Daewoo. And South Korea was a country that had looked a lot like Bangladesh 20 years before, wrecked from another the Korean War.

CHOWDHURY: Korea was poor country in 1951. But when I went there, Korea was no longer a poor country.

CHACE: The reason Korea was no longer a poor country had a lot to do with what was going on in this factory. What he saw inside amazed Chowdhury. The place was huge. Everything gigantic, the cutting table was like a banquet hall in Windsor Castle. But most exciting, so, so many people working there, mostly women.

CHOWDHURY: And what I saw, lot of the girls, they were working. They were working. And when I saw those girls, I remember my country and I can see that my girls can replace these girls like that. And that was the intention.

KENNEY: What was happening in South Korea, Chowdhry wanted to do it in Bangladesh. But he needed the Koreans' help. So he sat down with the chairman of Daewoo to see if they could strike a deal.

CHOWDHURY: Well, first of all, he give me a schedule for 45 minutes. The guy with whom I was there, he said, Mr. Chowdhury, you're really lucky you've got 45 minutes because he doesn't talk to anyone for more than 10 minutes. You will not believe it. I started the meeting after lunch and I finished at 2 o'clock in the morning.

KENNEY: When the meeting ended in the dead of the night, Bangladesh and Korea had a deal. Korea would set up the first export-oriented garment factory in Bangladesh. They'd spend six months teaching the Bangladeshis everything from how to sew a collar to where to place their cutting tables, the whole entire process.

CHACE: To the Bangladeshis, this is awesome. It's a brand new industry bringing lots and lots of jobs. For Korea, this was solving a different problem, a problem handed to them by Richard Nixon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICHARD NIXON: What we're fighting for is for the protection of our textiles and our textile markets.

CHACE: This is President Nixon talking in Asheville, N.C., in 1970. He's promising to do something about the textiles that were flooding in from Asia and threatening jobs in textile towns like Asheville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NIXON: You know, textiles are produced all over the United States of America, and we have the problem of imports, imports from abroad.

KENNEY: Nixon wanted to protect the domestic industry here in America.

CHACE: In fact, he promised to do that when he was running for president.

KENNEY: And over in Europe, it turns out they had the same problem. They were worried about losing jobs, too. So Nixon and the Europeans got together and they hammered out this massive deal to protect themselves.

CHACE: This deal is called the Multifibre Arrangement. And this thing is huge.

KENNEY: Huge.

CHACE: This is so big, I need to say it again - the Multifibre Arrangement. This deal transformed everything for Bangladesh and actually for the world. This deal limited the amount of textiles and clothes that all these poorer developing countries, places like Japan, places like Korea, could sell to the rich countries in the world, like the United States and Europe.

KENNEY: Pietra Rivoli is an expert in all this. She wrote this book, "The Travels Of A T-Shirt In The Global Economy," which was the inspiration for this whole project. And she's been working for us on this project. She says that this arrangement, these limits, they call them quotas, that they put on what people could sell to the U.S., were very precise.

PIETRA RIVOLI: Sri Lanka, you can sell the United States this many bras. China, you can sell France this many T-shirts.

CHACE: Was it really that specific, this many T-shirts, this many bras, this kind of underwear?

RIVOLI: This many sheets, this many towels. It was very, very specific.

KENNEY: How did they come up with the numbers? I mean, that seems like an insane process.

RIVOLI: Yeah, it was an insane process. You would go down these lists of products one by one and you'd say, OK, towels. You know, well, we've got these towel manufacturers in North Carolina. You know, we really need to worry about them. So let's put a quota on towels. It was crazy.

CHACE: This Multifibre Arrangement was in the mind of the CEO of Daewoo, the Korean company, when he was in that all-night meeting with Abdul Chowdhury. Korea was having this big problem right at that moment. They had a bunch of stuff they were trying to sell to the United States and they had hit their limit. They had hit their quota.

RIVOLI: Korea is there thinking, well, you know, now what do I do? And so they looked around and they said, well, maybe I can figure out how to produce in some other country. And so that's how Korea gets to Bangladesh.

CHACE: To the chairman of Daewoo, this is the advantage of Bangladesh. It's a brand new country. It has no quotas, it has no limits, it's not a part of the trade deal at all. So the Koreans were eager to partner with Abdul Chowdhury, make as many clothes in Bangladesh as they would like. So after that meeting, Chowdhury goes back to Bangladesh with this simple assignment - find the people that will start this brand new industry. The plan was for him to collect a bunch of people, bring them over to Korea where they'd get trained on how to run a garment factory.

KENNEY: The Koreans thought, OK, if we're really going to do this, we need about 140 Bangladeshis to come to Korea. Chowdhury looked around, surveying the war-ravaged scene of Bangladesh, and he worried about finding 20 people.

CHOWDHURY: I mean, this is something, those business, it was impossible even to dream. But anyway, I'll do it.

KENNEY: He was looking for help. So he decided to take out an ad, a glossy ad in a Bangladeshi newspaper. It was basically a help wanted ad, but a really unusual one because the ad said they were looking for factory managers and factory supervisors for factories that didn't even exist yet.

CHACE: People can't even picture what these factories are like in Bangladesh. They haven't been built. They haven't been started. And the other thing is that if you wanted to get these jobs, you had to agree to go to Korea for six months to get trained.

MUHAMMAD NERUDDIN: We saw the ad in the newspaper.

CHACE: Both of you guys saw this ad.

NERUDDIN: Started somewhere in 1978 in September.

CHACE: Muhammad Neruddin and Anwar Chowdhury, they were two of the guys who took the trip.

NERUDDIN: They will pay all the expenses and also they will pay us the pocket money over there.

CHACE: In the end, Chowdhury found 128 Bangladeshis who were willing to do it. They seemed committed to their country. They wanted to build it up like Chowdhury did.

KENNEY: So in 1979, the group of Bangladeshis flew off to Korea. Some of them were leaving Bangladesh for the very first time in their lives, and the culture clash was instant, especially the food.

NERUDDIN: The problem we had - the stinky food, kimchi. We could not eat them. The - some girls were vomiting. They could not exist.

CHACE: Did they - really, they threw up?

NERUDDIN: Yeah.

CHACE: The Bangladeshis also weirded out the Koreans, I found out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

CHACE: Say hi.

KIM EUN HEE: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

CHACE: We reached Kim Eun Hee. He was the Korean trainer at Daewoo in charge of the collar and cuff section. Korea was still pretty isolated back then in the '70s, and Kim Eun Hee had never met someone from that part of the world.

KIM: (Through interpreter) When they approached me to shake hands, their hands smelled. I mean, they had this smell on their hand that was - that I was not used to. I mean, just generally when they were around there were these different spices that I could smell from them. And so it was not too easy at first to approach them and to be near them.

KENNEY: Neither side had been prepared for this aspect of the training, the smell of each other. And Kim Eun Hee says the problem with the food, it went both ways. Once, the Bangladeshis invited the Koreans to this special meal prepared just for them.

KIM: (Through interpreter) And what happened was they served some of their food to us and we couldn't eat it. We - it was just repelling. And so we kind of sat there not eating it, and our CEO actually called all of us out and they - he brought us to the corner room. He said, you know, we're going to be living in an international society, and this is something that we're just going to have to endure. So suck it up and just eat it.

CHACE: That part about the international society, of course, turns out to be very true. The two sides eventually got used to each other because they needed each other. After he trained the Bangladeshis, Kim Eun Hee went on to meet lots of non-Koreans. In fact, he flew to Bangladesh to help them set up the very first export-oriented garment factory, Desh Garments in Chittagong in 1980. Together, they set the whole thing up, all the lines in the correct order, the tables placed just as they had been in Korea, and the factory began churning out Korean-made dress shirts in Bangladesh.

KENNEY: That was the first. Today, there are thousands. And this story is exactly why when we're driving around the city that's making the PLANET MONEY T-shirt, Chittagong, Bangladesh, you, today, see all these factories making clothes.

CHACE: Anwar Chowdhury says everything that we're seeing, it's because of the six months that he and those guys spent in Korea.

ANWAR CHOWDHURY: All our people displayed all over Bangladesh. Every factory, the key position people, directly or indirectly are obtained by me or my colleagues.

CHACE: So if I see a garment factory in Bangladesh, a garment operation, somehow it connects back to the original guys.

CHOWDHURY: Absolutely. You're right. Wherever you go, the origin is there.

KENNEY: This story, the story of how one trade deal can change the fate of an entire country, is way bigger than Bangladesh. During the '70s and the '80s, this trade deal played out all over the world. It reshaped the entire map of where our clothes are made. And some of these countries that got into the business of making clothes back then, some Americans couldn't even find them on a map. We're just going to list a couple off.

CHACE: Korea hit the quota. They went to Bangladesh.

KENNEY: India hit the quota, went to Nepal.

CHACE: Taiwan hit the quota, went to Cambodia.

KENNEY: Sri Lanka hit the quota, went to the Maldives.

CHACE: Hong Kong hit the quota, went to Mauritius. It was as though Richard Nixon tried to punch out Japan and splattered Asian textiles all over the globe. The world shifted. Container ships had a lot more stops on their route to the West.

KENNEY: And it wasn't just countries hitting this wall and looking for a new place to manufacture. Some of it was just random. Getting a quota, getting the ability to sell to the U.S. was sort of like getting a lottery ticket that could change the economy of a developing country. The Philippines, for example, they got the ticket for baby clothes. Here's Pietra.

RIVOLI: I don't know why. Nobody knows why. So...

CHACE: Right, 'cause there's actually no reason why (laughter).

RIVOLI: There's no good reason why. And so, you know, there's a big and successful baby clothes industry, you know, in the Philippines.

CHACE: And it all comes back to this deal, the Multifibre Arrangement, the MFA. The deal originally designed to shut out the entire global textile industry, it did something else entirely.

RIVOLI: It actually caused the global textile and apparel industry to globalize, whereas the intent, of course, was to keep the domestic industry strong and healthy. But the real effect was to globalize it.

KENNEY: So they did exactly the opposite of what they were trying to do (laughter).

RIVOLI: The end result was the opposite of the original intent.

KENNEY: These quotas were phased out over 30 years because, in part, they weren't working as originally intended. They ended for good in 2005. Four million people now work in the garment industry here in Bangladesh. There are thousands of factories. Of course, the rapid spread of the garment industry here has not come without costs. Some of the factories here were just slapped on top of buildings in the rush to get business.

There are big infrastructure problems. Some factories are unsafe. This year, of course, over a thousand people were killed in a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. The country is now facing huge pressure to improve working conditions and to raise wages.

CHACE: Daewoo, the Korean company that started all this in Bangladesh, turned to fancy fabrics, then high-end electronics, went bankrupt, then reorganized. Kim Eun Hee himself, he started working on spandex for Nike. But he still remembers a little Bengali from those days.

Can you speak any Bengali?

KIM: (Speaking Bengali) I love you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That means I love you.

CHACE: Oh (laughter). Is that what you guys said to each other at the end?

KIM: (Through interpreter) Yeah, we did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORLD IS YOURS")

NAS: (Rapping) It's yours. Whose world is this?

CHACE: Before we go, we have some people to thank. Author Munir Juarez (ph), he is the one who first told us this amazing story about Desh Garments. Ani Sook (ph), he arranged the meeting of all the original guys for us when we were in Bangladesh. Our fixer, Salman Sayyid (ph), of course, made everything possible in Bangladesh, getting from place to place. Joe Kim (ph) was our Korean translator. He was the voice of Mr. Kim Eun Hee. Cormen Kim (ph) also helped with translation. NPR's library, Katie Doggert (ph). The Nixon Library helped us with the Nixon part of the research. And Su Bin Park (ph), the fixer in South Korea, he tracked down Kim Eun Hee after all these years.

KENNEY: Also, we have some exciting news for you today. If you ordered your T-shirt from the Kickstarter, we can say they are in the mail. They should be arriving this week. The full website where we're going to have photos, videos, a ton more about this project is going to be live on Monday, December 2. That's at planetmoney.com/shirt. And as always, we want to know what you thought of today's show. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. I'm Caitlin Kenney.

KENNEY: I'm Zoe Chace. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORLD IS YOURS")

NAS: (Rapping) It's mine, it's mine, it's mine. Whose world is this? The world is yours. The world is yours. It's mine, it's mine, it's mine. Whose world is this? It's yours. It's yours. It's mine, it's mine, it's mine. Whose world is this? Yo, the world is yours. The world is yours. It's mine, it's mine, it's mine. Whose world is this? It's yours.

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