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Will Bangladesh’s Tainted Election Serve as a Wakeup Call for Fashion?

A vote widely seen as rigged could spark another round of protests and violence, with the country’s millions of garment workers on the front lines. The fashion industry has been reluctant to get involved, but may find it has no other choice.
Bangladesh's leading opposition parties are boycotting Sunday's election.
Bangladesh's leading opposition parties are boycotting Sunday's election. (Getty Images)

The outcome of Bangladesh’s presidential election, held Sunday, was never in doubt. Incumbent prime minister Sheikh Hasina looked headed for a fourth consecutive term after her main opponents boycotted the poll, saying they had no faith the vote would be free and fair. Prominent opposition politicians have been imprisoned or disqualified from the ballot in what supporters say are politically motivated charges.

The election was part of a deepening crackdown by the ruling Awami League that has increasingly spilled over into the fashion supply chain. Bangladesh is the world’s second-biggest clothing exporter after China, and the garment industry is one of the country’s biggest employers. But many of those workers receive poverty wages and a dispute over minimum wages that led to mass protests at the end of last year was met by forceful repression from the government.

Western brands say their hands are all-but tied: if they unilaterally force factories to raise wages, they fear they will be undercut by competitors with fewer scruples. Leaving Bangladesh entirely isn’t an appealing or ethical option either. Other garment manufacturing hubs face many of the same challenges and shifting business could cause mass unemployment for the very workers brand say they are trying to help. If anything, Bangladesh is likely to only grow more important as retailers look to diversify away from China.

However, if Sunday’s election kicks off another cycle of protests, violence and strikes, it could prod fashion companies to offer more meaningful support for garment workers, and for the US and EU to pressure Bangladesh’s government to ease off its opponents. Such action is not unprecedented: the US government has restricted imports of products made using cotton sourced in China’s Xinjiang region over that country’s treatment of the Uighur minority, and Rana Plaza did lead to real change in how Bangladesh’s garment industry operated.

But don’t count on a big shift after Sunday’s election. Until Bangladesh’s deteriorating democracy reaches the radar of Western consumers, the fashion industry may choose to keep its head in the sand.

What Else to Watch for This Week

Sunday

Bangladesh holds national elections

The Golden Globes return to television for the first time since 2021

Monday

Brunello Cucinelli reports results, kicking off the luxury sector’s earnings season

Eurozone reports November retail sales

Tuesday

Pitti Uomo begins in Florence. Guest designers include Luca Magliano and S.S. Daley, with Todd Snyder, Tod’s and Guess among the brands showing new collections.

Eurozone reports November unemployment rate

Wednesday

Aritzia reports quarterly results

Thursday

US reports inflation data for December

Friday

Milan Men’s fashion week begins with Sabato De Sarno’s first men’s show for Gucci

Saturday

The shows continue with Dolce & Gabbana, Emporio Armani and more

The Week Ahead wants to hear from you! Send tips, suggestions, complaints and compliments to brian.baskin@businessoffashion.com.

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