More details were added to this post after it was published. The new information was courtesy of Vidiya Khan, director of the Desh Group, and daughter of Noorul Quader.
Bangladesh was created out of chaos in the early 1970s, at a moment when millions in the country were dying from a combination of war and famine. The future looked exceedingly bleak.
Abdul Majid Chowdhury and Noorul Quader were Bangladeshi businessmen who wanted to help their country. "We asked ourselves, 'What the hell do we want?' " Chowdhury recalls. The answer he and his friends arrived at: "We need employment. We need dollars."
Their solution involved Richard Nixon, an obscure but hugely influential trade deal, and a cultural struggle over kimchi.
At the time, Bangladesh had no modern economy to speak of. The country's main export was jute, a fiber used to make burlap sacks. So Quader and Chowdhury looked to textiles, an industry that had been a first step out of rural poverty for dozens of countries, stretching all the way back to the Industrial Revolution in England. One problem: Chowdhury didn't know the first thing about the textile business. "I did not know how many buttons I had in my shirt," he says.
A few decades earlier, South Korea had also been a largely rural country that was devastated by war and written off by much of the world. But, partly by learning to make clothes and sell them to the world, South Korea had climbed the ladder out of poverty.
Quader and the head of a major garment factory in South Korea had been in touch about the possibility of manufacturing in Bangladesh. So Quader sent Chowdhury to South Korea, where he toured a clothing factory full of women working at sewing machines. He knew instantly that women in Bangladesh could do the work.
Chowdhury sat down for a meeting with the head of Daewoo, the giant company that owned the factory. They talked to the guy for ten hours, until 2 in the morning. The meeting worked. Daewoo agreed to invest in a clothing factory in Bangladesh.
Help came from an unlikely source: President Richard Nixon. In the early '70s, clothes and textiles were pouring into the U.S. from South Korea and other countries and were threatening U.S. textile jobs. European countries were having the same problem. In response, Nixon worked with European leaders to create a global agreement called the Multi-Fiber Arrangement. The boring-sounding deal reshaped much of the global economy.
The MFA set firm quotas for how much clothing other countries could sell to the United States and European countries. The rules were incredibly detailed: Sri Lanka can sell only so many bras to the U.S. each year; China can sell this many T-shirts, and no more.
And, crucially, around the time Chowdhury made his trip to the Daewoo clothing factory, South Korea had hit its quota under the MFA. That gave Korean companies an incentive to set up shop somewhere else — like, say, Bangladesh — to be able to make clothes for export to the U.S.
Quader, with Chowdhury's help, wound up bringing a group of 128 of his countrymen to train with Daewoo in South Korea for six months. The culture clash was instant. "The problem we had was the stinky food — the kimchi," says Muhammad Nuruddin, one of the trainees, who still works in garments today. "We could not eat them ... Some girls were vomiting."
The Koreans were similarly weirded out by the Bangladeshis. It was the first time Kim Eun Hee, a trainer at Daewoo in charge of the collar-and-cuff section, had ever met someone from that part of the world. "When they were around, there were these different spices that I could smell from them," he recalls. "It was not too easy at first to approach them and to be near them."
But they worked through it. Kim Eun Hee even tried Bangladeshi food himself. "Once, they invited us to a special event that they prepared for us," he says. "They served some of their food to us, and we couldn't eat it. It was just repelling."
It was so awkward, that the boss had to intervene. "Our CEO actually called all of us out," Kim says. "He brought us to a corner room and said, 'We're going to be living in an international society, and this is something we're going to have to endure. So suck it up and just eat it.' "
The CEO was right: In 1980, Kim Eun Hee flew to Bangladesh to help set up the country's first export-oriented garment factory, Desh Garments, led by Noorul Quader, the Chairman and Managing Director. Quader hired Chowdhury to work with him as a director.
In the 30 years since then, Bangladesh has become one of the world's largest exporters of apparel. This has created millions of jobs and helped drive down the country's poverty rate, but the rapid change has also created new problems for Bangladesh. This was made tragically clear earlier this year, when the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers.
Today, there are more than 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh. One way or another, most of them trace their lineage to Quader, Chowdhury and the 128 Bangladeshis who traveled to Korea 30 years ago.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. We've been reporting this week about the Planet Money T-shirt and the global factory that created it. For example, much of the sewing work was done in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the top five suppliers of clothing to the United States. And it got to that position because of some unlikely events, including an obscure trade deal from the 1970s. Zoe Chace of NPR's Planet Money team reports.
ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: This story begins in the early '70s. Bangladesh was one of the poorest places on Earth - a civil war, a cyclone, a refugee crisis. It was bad. And it sparked the first Live Aid-style benefit concert ever.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANGLADESH")
GEORGE HARRISON: (Singing) Bangladesh, Bangladesh...
CHACE: That's George Harrison, one of the Beatles. Now, inside Bangladesh, there was this other guy working on a plan to help, Abdul Majid Chowdhury. Chowdhury was a businessman. He and a couple of his friends were looking around for ways to help their country's desperate economy.
ABDUL MAJID CHOWDHURY: We need employment. We need dollar. And we ask ourselves what the hell we want.
CHACE: Back then, there was hardly any industry there. The country's main export was this plant, jute, the main ingredient in burlap sacks. Chowdhury saw an opportunity making clothes to sell to the world - relatively low-cost, relatively low-skill. Only one problem...
CHOWDHURY: I did not know how many buttons I had in my shirt. We did not know. I mean, that is the thing.
CHACE: There was a place that did know exactly: the country of Korea. Chowdhury saw Korea as a model for Bangladesh. Also devastated by a war and written off, but its economy had rebounded, in part because they'd learned to make clothes and sell them to the world. So, Chowdhury went to South Korea and toured a massive garment factory there, and he saw the jobs he'd been looking for.
CHOWDHURY: What I saw that lot of girls, they were working. And when I saw those girls, I remembered my country, and I can see that my girls can replace these girls...
(SOUNDBITE OF FINGERS SNAPPING)
CHOWDHURY: ...like that. And that was the intention.
CHACE: Chowdhury set up a meeting with the head of the factory, the CEO of the company Daewoo. The meeting was scheduled for 45 minutes. It went over.
CHOWDHURY: You will not believe it. I started the meeting after lunch. It was about 4 o'clock. And I finished at 2 o'clock in the morning.
CHACE: Chowdhury emerged in the dead of night with a deal. Korea would help set up the first export-oriented garment factory in Bangladesh. Chowdhury had help convincing the Daewoo chairman to invest in Bangladesh, help from an unlikely source: Richard Nixon.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: And so what we're fighting for is for the protection of our textiles and our textile markets. But let's do it...
CHACE: This is President Nixon talking in Asheville, North Carolina in 1970, promising to do something about the cheap clothes and textiles that were flooding in from places like Korea 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.
CHACE: So, Nixon helped create this massive piece of trade policy in 1974: the Multifiber Arrangement. Sounds boring, but you could say it reshaped the entire global economy. It set these firm limits for how much clothing and textiles each country could sell to the United States. And around the time that Mr. Chowdhury had made his trip to the Daewoo clothing factory, Korea had hit its limit, which gave the Koreans an incentive: open up a factory in another country, say, Bangladesh, get made-in-Bangladesh labels put on their Korean-made shirts and sell them to the West. So, the deal Chowdhury and the Daewoo CEO worked out in the late hours of their meeting was for Chowdhury to come back to Korea with a whole bunch of Bangladeshis. The Koreans would train them for six months, and then they'd all go back to Bangladesh together and open a factory. Eventually, 128 Bangladeshis fly off to Korea, a country most of them had certainly never seen, and the culture clash was instant. Muhammad Nuruddin was on that trip.
MUHAMMAD NURUDDIN: The problem we had - the stinky food, kimchi. We could not eat them. Some girls were vomiting. They could not exist.
CHACE: Did they really? They threw up?
CHACE: The Bangladeshis weirded out the Koreans, too, I discovered.
KIM EUN HEE: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
HEE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CHACE: I 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. Kim Eun Hee had never met someone from that part of the world.
HEE: (Through translator) When they approached me to shake hands, their hands smelled. I mean, they had this smell on their hands that I was not used to. 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.
CHACE: Neither side had been prepared for this aspect of the training, the smell of each other, but they worked through it. Kim Eun Hee even tried the Bangladeshi food himself at a special event the Bangladeshis threw for the Koreans.
HEE: (Through translator) And what happened was they served some of their food to us, and we couldn't eat it. It was just repelling. We kind of sat there not eating it, and our CEO actually called all of us out. And he brought us to the corner of a room, and he said: 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 turns out to be true, certainly immediately for Korea. After six months of training, Kim Eun Hee flew to Bangladesh to help them set up the very first export-oriented garment factory there: Desh Garments, in Chittagong. That was in 1980. In 30 years, a country that had only the material to make burlap sacks to sell to the world became one of the biggest clothing makers on Earth, now more than 4,000 factories. Anwal Chowdhury, another person from the original group who went to Korea, he says you can trace every one back to our trip.
ANWAL CHOWDHURY: Wherever you go, the origin is there. Maybe it is now fourth or fifth generation that I train person, he train another person, and then again he train another person.
CHACE: Now, the rapid spread of the garment industry in Bangladesh has brought problems. The government is weak, the infrastructure weaker. You've probably heard of Rana Plaza, the factory that collapsed, killing more than a thousand people. The country industrialized so quickly, that sometimes it's dangerous. Kim Eun Hee - in fact, Daewoo, the company - stopped making clothes, moved into high-end fabrics and electronics, but he still remembers a little Bengali from those days.
HEE: (Bengali spoken) I love you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That means I love you.
CHACE: Oh. Is that what you guys said to each other at the end?
HEE: (Through translator) Yeah, we did.
CHACE: Passing the T-shirt baton from one country to the next, all because of a piece of trade policy that changed the world, and certainly utterly changed Bangladesh. Zoe Chace, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: NPR sent video cameras around the world to follow the secret life of a T-shirt, and you can see every step - it's amazing - at npr.org/shirt. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.