Bangladesh's garment industry seems to have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, from worker discontent to dangerous conditions and corruption, not to mention environmental hurdles such as fierce monsoons. But Rebecca Danton found the opening of Epic Group's new state-of-the-art plant near Dhaka swept every presumption about the country's industry into oblivion.

The opening of CIPL (Cosmopolitan Industries Pvt Ltd), the largest stand-alone clothing production plant in Bangladesh, is particularly poignant for the country's image.

Not only do hartals - political demonstrations - disrupt business on a weekly basis in the run-up to next year's election, but the garment industry seems to have been riding a non-stop conveyor belt of disasters.

Workers injured in car crashes, factories going up in flames, catastrophic monsoons, employees clashing with owners over pay and conditions, and widespread allegations of corruption - Bangladesh has them all.

But what it also clearly has is strong appeal for international apparel firms such as Hong Kong-based Epic, which has offices in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, the US and the UK and makes clothing for international brands and retailers including Jones Apparel and Gap.

While lacking the fast-developing infrastructure of countries such as China, the whole of the Indian subcontinent seems to be slowly catching up. And Bangladesh arguably has an even more competitive edge than its neighbours when it comes to seeking an alternative to the once dirt-cheap China.

As well as being the lowest-cost country in the subcontinent, Bangladesh also boasts a GSP (generalised system of preference), allowing many products - including a wide range of garments made from Bangladeshi fabric - to be exported duty-free.

On top of this, it has access to an impressive portfolio of machinery; a must for any forward-looking garment industry. Its quick trucking time to India, with its massive yarn and textile sector, is also a major plus for prospective manufacturers.

Promisingly, the country's infrastructure seems to be getting better and better all the time, and the progress already witnessed in the last 25 years is boosting investors' confidence.

Scott Felder, an Epic co-manager of sales, merchandising and design, says: "It's amazing how much Bangladesh has changed for the better in the years since Epic first arrived here."

"This is an exciting step forward for the Epic Group," added Ranjan Mahtani, CEO, who notes that the addition CIPL will take Epic's monthly output to more than 3m items of clothing.

"The opening of CIPL will bring a new class of manufacturing to the Bangladesh fashion industry, and after 25 years of experience in this market, we are pleased to be able to make such a positive contribution."

Manufacturing masterpiece
Epic appears to be bringing to the country a golden example of what manufacturing should be like. Headed up by Mahtani and managing partners Dinesh Virwani and Sunil Daryanani, the new plant in Ashulia is well-situated just 18km from Dhaka airport.

Travelling down the street that precedes it, where traders sell saris, food and many other assorted goods from crammed-together shacks, the factory's contrast to its surroundings is unlikely but poignant.

Passing through shanty villages, glimpses of the gleaming factory bring home just what a feat has been achieved in setting it up.

The colossal factory building is home to end-to-end production lines where garments are cut, sewn, laundered, finished, printed and embroidered.

The factory, which makes woven sportswear for men, women and children, has the capacity to turn out 30,000 garments a day. It currently employs around 1,000 workers but this is set to rise to 4,000 in the next couple of months as the facility reaches full-scale production.

Finishing processes include sand blasting, tinting, garment dyeing and grinding. Both mechanical and hand-finished techniques are available, ensuring Epic can meet the needs of both lower- and higher-end customers.

Among its investments are Japanese computerised embroidery machines and a technologically advanced wrinkle-free unit that can post-cure 20,000 pieces daily and a fully equipped sample room that has a daily capacity of 400 samples.

Another of the factory's most valuable assets is its INA computerised production hanger system; an extremely time-efficient mechanism which automatically moves garments from one worker to the next.

This also stops workers from having to stack up a pile of garments before them meaning more space and a generally much more streamlined workplace.

Mahtani tells just-style "We are the first business to install the system in a Bangladesh garment factory".

Quality controls
Quality checks are done every step of the way at CIPL, alleviating wasted time, material and money. Felder emphasises how important it is that both the product, and the factory conditions, are of the utmost quality.

One of the most breathtaking sights is the laundry room, where a line of industrial super-sized washing machines is set to wash garment loads according to clothing types.

Mahtani insisted the room would break the mould of normal factory laundry rooms - which are usually full of water overspill - and installed a type of floor covering where a drop of water could be potentially lethal, so that workers would have no choice but to ensure the room stays dry.

A room with a more familiar sight - two normal household washing machines - is where garments are tested to make sure they will stand up to consumer demand.

"We want to make sure the people who actually buy the garments get the kind of quality they expect, whether this is a product staying in great condition for 20, 30 or more washes," Felder explained.

Felder's co-manager Jeff Bergus said the firm refuses to compromise on quality, and therefore draws the line at GBP2-a-pair jeans such as those sold in Tesco.

It claims to have even turned down several large orders from companies on purely quality terms, and is taking a longer-term view that includes design-led jeans.  Discussions with retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch are already taking place.

Customer confidence
One of Epic's biggest clients is US-based Jones Apparel Group, whose well-known brands include Jones New York, Anne Klein, Glo Jeans and l.e.i. to name just a few.

Christopher Lorusso, Jones Apparel's executive VP of woven production, agrees that it is the sort of factory the company is happy to place business with.

At a time when companies can be under pressure to visit a factory to dig out unscrupulous practices, it's encouraging to see a big name scrutinising every part of a supplier's facilities and reporting such high standards.

Measures aimed at providing a safe, reliable and pleasant working environment seem to be everywhere. The plant is fully air-conditioned, boasts its own power generator and water supply, and offers workers an on-site crèche and medical centre with its own ambulance. There's lots of work space filled with energetic, bright-eyed, happy workers, and a clear absence of child labour.

The good conditions, and Epic's eagerness to help workers progress, are part of the company's strategy to get people to stay on long-term. Managing director Sukh Kareer says: "We give workers the training they need; which is why they stay with us."

Epic admits it's not always easy doing business in Bangladesh. Frequent power cuts and strikes aren't exactly conducive to getting the job done, and the company would in some ways have had an easier ride in a more developed country like China, which is also blessed with less eclectic weather and a more stable political situation.

Multiple lethal terrorist attacks have also occurred in Bangladesh over the past year - not exactly encouraging for foreigners who need to visit the country. And corruption and inefficiency could also prove problematic.

But after 25 years already in the country, it's clear that if anyone can do well here, Epic can. With the keenness of its workers - who returned to the factory twice in ten minutes recently after two power cuts - any obstacles along the way will be met with a head-on determination to succeed.