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"One thing is very clear; our foremost responsibility was towards our workers. We are a manufacturing country, our reality and your reality are totally different, but it is not a time to point out differences, it's a time through which we need to work together."
This was said by the President of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Export Association, Rubana Huq, in a video message directed towards companies such as Walmart and H&M, to urge them not to cancel orders and to accept the products already produced or under production.
As COVID-19 cases are increasing day by day, the opposite can be seen happening to the number of orders in the RMG sector of Bangladesh. This pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the garments industry. Providing employment for more than 4.1 million workers, the garments sector has seen cancellation of $1.5 billion worth of orders by European and U.S retailers.
Bangladesh is home to the second largest RMG industry in the world, after China. The industry makes up 80.7% of the country’s total exports and 12.36% of the country’s entire GDP figures. The industry also accounts for 13% of South Asian nations GDP. The Bangladeshi economy has been experiencing rapid economic growth in recent years and was set to expand by 7% for the fifth year straight. By the edge cutting policies set in place by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the per capita income has also been boosted to have become, as estimated by the IMF, $1906 last year. This was right next to the per capita income of India of $2172. The current situation has acted as a setback.
1089 factories have seen orders getting scrapped and the owners are unlikely to fight back in fear of losing future business when the pandemic passes. A recent survey done by the Center for Global Workers Rights and Workers Rights Consortium, a Washington DC-based labor rights organization, has brought to light that 60% of the 316 factories that have responded to the survey have reported that they have closed down most of their productions while 6% has answered saying all orders have been cancelled. 46% has lost a big share of orders.
The result of these extreme measures taken by foreign companies has forced countless factories to either lay off their workers or give their workers furlough. 1.2 million workers have been affected out of which 70% of them receiving furloughs have reported to have been sent home without pay. Less than 20% were not given severance pay after being fired.
This has particularly taken a hard hit on parents, especially women, working in the factories. The garments workforce of Bangladesh has been reported to be made up of 85% women. Given the situation, schools are still not being reopened so children have to stay home during the day. Women are being forced to leave their children at home during the day, all alone.
"I stayed home for days but then there wasn't much to feed my children and no money to pay rent and bills. So, I left them alone, prayed they would be safe and went to work," said Radha, a mother of two children aged 4 and 6. She had to go out seeking work when her husband’s daily wage was no longer a sufficient amount.
“We will have 4.1 million workers literally going hungry if we don’t all step up to a commitment to the welfare of workers”, continued Rubana Huq in her video message raising awareness of the desperate situation of the workers.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced 50 billion-taka (more than $600 million) worth of support packages for export-oriented manufacturers to help pay workers. As factory owners have shown gratitude to a certain extent, they have also mentioned that the amount is very small. The amount will only cover one month’s pay of the workers. Current number of cases in Bangladesh has been reported to be 1,65,618 and reported deaths have reached 2,096. Despite that some factories have opened up and workers are working, bundled up in PPE. It has been estimated that 2,00,000 garments workers are back at work.
"I'm going to work every day and I'm full of fear," said one garment factory worker while being interviewed by BBC. "In my factory, there are so many of us working in such a small place, which increases the risk of coronavirus infection. I'm scared for my life."
With the rising numbers, it is evident that fear is also rising. Factory owners are being forced to shut down ongoing production or shut down the entire factory. Workers are being sent home empty handed, with no sign of a paycheck in sight in the near future. The level of uncertainty is an added factor to the rising fear. The workers who are still being able to work are being forced to work in small spaces, which is highly dangerous. They are also having to leave their children home, unsupervised, while working shifts lasting up to 20 hours.
It is high time that strong forces are enforced. An industry that contributes the highest towards the country’s GDP and total exports, should surely be of top priority for the government. Disaster management funds should be set in place and strong credit guarantee schemes should be also set in place. Otherwise the economy of Bangladesh could be experiencing severe damage that might be irreversible.
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