Theft of garment items rising on Dhaka-Ctg highway
Highway theft is becoming a growing concern for garment exporters.
Organised gangs have long been stealing garment items from lorries on Dhaka- Chattogram highway, but garment exporters now face significant financial loss and run the risk of losing trust of foreign buyers as such thefts are on the rise.
RMG industry leaders have for years demanded highway vigilance to prevent the theft that compromises the credibility of the country's biggest export earners.
Seeking remedies, leaders of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) sat with the home minister and top law enforcers in July.
BGMEA President Faruque Hassan said the minister assured them of taking measures and installing CCTV cameras on Dhaka-Chattogram highway within four months to prevent theft.
The Bangladesh economy relies heavily on apparel export. The market share of Bangladesh, the second largest RMG exporter after China, in the over $400 billion global garment items is 6.8 percent, according to 2019 World Trade Organisation data.
RMG exporters say repeated thefts could lead to the loss of reputation of Bangladesh's apparel sector and eventually cancellation of work orders, affecting the country's export earnings.
THREATENED BY THEFT
The gangs have established such a foolproof system that exporters cannot even know about the theft until their buyers inform them of missing items, sometimes months after the shipment, causing embarrassment.
After a third-party inspection of quality and quantity, exporters contact transport agencies to send garment items for shipment through Chattogram Sea Port. The transport agencies then hire the lorries.
Once the loading at the factory is complete, the drivers, who are part of the gangs, pass the message to their partners in crime about the shipment, the route and the time, detectives said.
As per the plan, the vehicles stop on the highway and go to secret warehouses in Gazipur, Shiddirganj in Narayanganj, Chandina in Cumilla, Feni, Mirsharai and Sitakunda in Chattogram, a DB official said.
There, the gangs take off the seals of the padlocks on the cargo door, open the cartons, remove some garments items from the bottom of the boxes, refill the empty space with sand, rags or even mud, and then reseal the cartons and the padlocks.
The repackaging is done so smartly that it is difficult to spot any abnormality until the foreign buyers open the cartons, said a number of exporters who have been victims of such theft and faced angry reactions from buyers.
In some cases, 30-40 percent of the total consignment are stolen and sold at much lower prices in the local market or to some unscrupulous foreign buyers, according to detectives.
For instance, a quality T-shirt is sold for around $3 on the black market, much below the export value of around $10, BGMEA Vice-president Shahidullah Azim told The Daily Star recently.
Detectives have identified at least eight such gangs and have arrested 10 people over their alleged involvement in the organised crime.
Police said one gang is led by a 20-year veteran in the business named Shahed, also known as Sayeed. He was arrested after two cases were filed over such theft in Dhaka on September 12 and 17.
"We are conducting drives to arrest the rest of the gang members," said Shahadat Hossain Suma, additional deputy commissioner of Tejgaon Division of Detective Branch.
AKM Hafiz Akhter, additional commissioner of Detective Branch of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), said they have information that some foreign buyers visit Bangladesh and purchase stolen garment products.
ON THE RISE
BGMEA records show highway theft of garment products is on the rise – two incidents were reported in 2019, nine in 2020 and 22 until July this year.
Industry insiders say actual incidents of such theft would be higher, as many exporters do not report them for fear of losing buyers' confidence and possibly work orders.
In May, Jayanti Knitwear Ltd of Ashulia sent 28,320 pieces of garments to Chattogram port by a lorry for shipment.
But the foreign buyer found 11,000 pieces were missing and slapped a fine worth $28,908 for sending fewer items than agreed upon, said Bulbul Ahmed, manager (Administration and Human Resource) of Jayanti Knitwear.
The company filed a case against the driver and his associates last month. After his arrest, the driver confessed before a Dhaka court that he stole the items, Bulbul added.
On August 13, Rab arrested six members of another gang from an abandoned steel mills in Narayanganj and seized 41 sacks and 506 cartons full of stolen garments worth around Tk 6 crore.
At the time, Rab director (Legal and Media) Commander Khandaker Al Moin had said the arrestees admitted that they were involved in stealing exportable garment items for a long time.
Earlier in February and March, Rab caught 16 people red-handed in two separate drives when they were allegedly stealing garments items in Narayanganj and Cumilla.
A 'RICH THIEF'
While the exporters count loss, some gang members make their fortunes out of the stolen goods.
Shahed, the alleged ringleader, is one of them.
Also known as Sylheti Sayeed, he and his gang members have stolen garment items from 5,000 trucks and covered vans in the last 21 years, DB officials told a press conference after his latest arrest on September 17.
He has been sued at least 24 times over the years over such thefts. Last year, he was in jail for eight months in connection with six cases filed in the port city. But he returned to the old ways after being released on bail, said DB Additional Commissioner Hafiz Akhter.
One DB official said Sayeed owns two buildings and a brick kiln in Sylhet. A number of leaders of Truck-Covered Van Owners Association in Chattogram said Sayeed owns 29 lorries.
The proceeds from the theft are shared among all gang members. For each operation, the driver gets Tk 15,000, the helper Tk 12,000, while the kingpin pockets the majority of the booty, detectives said.
Chowdhury Zafar Ahmmed, Secretary General of Bangladesh Covered Vans, Truck and Prime Movers Ponno Poribahan Malik Association, acknowledged that some drivers and truck owners are involved in stealing garment items on the highways.
In the July meeting with the home minister, police asked factory owners to carry goods by their own trucks, if possible, or send trucks by police escort. They also asked them to monitor vehicles by using Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers.
A committee headed by the additional inspector general of highway police has been formed to work out a plan to tackle the crime.