Thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers were ordered home on April 5 voicing concerns about loss of income after arriving at work to find factories remained shut after the cancellation of Western orders due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although official numbers were not available, labor leaders said the majority of the workers they had spoken to had either been temporarily laid off or sent on leave. A smaller section of workers complained of being sacked. Bangladesh, which ranks behind only China as a supplier of clothes to Western countries, relies on the garment industry for more than 80 percent of its exports, with some 4,000 factories employing about 4 million people, mostly women.
Many top Western fashion brands manufacture clothing in Bangladesh but cancellations were increasing daily amid coronavirus-driven lockdowns globally.
The workers went to factories in Dhaka hoping to get paid for March and resume work after a 10-day break enforced by the government to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.
Although the government later extended the shutdown to April 14, workers said their owners asked them to return by April 5.
“When they reached the factories this morning, most of the workers were told that they were laid off or that the factory would resume after the shutdown,” said Khadiza Akter, vice president of the union Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.
Lives at risk
Akter said thousands of workers had put their lives at risk due to “mismanagement” in a bid to get back to work, ignoring advice over social distancing and with police outside the factories telling them to return home.
“They didn’t have to come back. They could have been told on the phone about the factory closures,” she said.
Garment worker unions are calling on the government, buyers, or factory owners to pay workers who will struggle to feed themselves and their families with no income.
Babul Rahman, a garment worker who travelled more than 150 km from his hometown by auto-rickshaw and on foot with public transport suspended, was told on April 5 he was laid off.
“The management asked me to come here on April 5 and now they are closed,” Rahman, who asked to use a different name for fear of reprisals, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I had to spend thrice as much money to come to Dhaka because buses are closed due to the shut down.”
According to Bangladesh’s labor law, workers who have been laid off will be paid less than their usual earnings until the factories reopen, which Rahman said will hurt his family. “Everything is more expensive because of the coronavirus as it is, and now if my salary decreases, I don’t know how I will survive,” said Rahman.
Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labor and Employment has asked garment factory owners not to sack workers and pay them full salaries for March by April 12.
“We know that there have been some issues, but we are hopeful that the owners will accept our request,” said a ministry spokesman Shib Nath Roy.
Two major industry bodies warned last week that Bangladesh was set to lose about $6 billion in export revenue this financial year amid cancellations from brands and retailers.
Unions and human rights groups have asked major Western buyers to support Bangladesh’s garment workers financially.
“We … are working with our affiliates to make this happen,” said Apoorva Kaiwar from the IndustriALL Global Union, when asked if brands were discussing packages for workers.
“The brands are still having their internal discussions and we hope to hear about positive developments soon,” she added.
Reporting by Naimul Karim for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.