Bangladesh: Tens of Thousands Back to Work Despite COVID-19 Fears

By Jesmin Papri on Apr 27, 2020

Tens of thousands of Bangladeshi employees have returned to work, officials and leaders of garment factory associations said Monday, despite concerns from labor leaders over workers’ safety, weeks after the government imposed a nationwide shutdown over the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19, which has infected more than three million people worldwide, has battered Bangladesh’s garments industry with Western companies canceling orders worth billions of dollars, officials with trade groups said.

“As per our directives, some area-based factories were supposed to reopen. The number could be around 500,” Faisal Samad, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told BenarNews, referring to the number of factories.

Owners of factories claimed that they had reopened on a limited scale following government-issued health guidelines to avert risks of coronavirus transmissions. But, they said, many had to shut down after reopening when most employees did not return for work.

There are no official figures on employees who began trickling back to work starting Sunday, but Mohammad Hatem, vice president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), told BenarNews that around 20 to 25 percent of the 1,101 factories belonging to the group had reopened as of Monday.

About 1.5 million people are employed in those factories, BKMEA said.

“Those who are reopening are actually not reopening with full capacity,” Hatem said, “because there’s not much work and social distancing can’t be maintained if factories are reopened with full capacity.”

Hatem said factories had reopened mainly to fulfill back orders.

Bangladesh’s garment trade, the most dynamic sector of the South Asian nation’s export economy, suffered huge losses with disruptions in the supply chain of fabrics imported from China, where health authorities believe the coronavirus originated in December last year.

The sector generated $34.1 billion in 2019, according to the BGMEA. Since 2014, the garment sector has also registered more than 80 percent annually of the gross domestic product (GDP) for Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest apparel exporter of fashion brands after China, according to the World Bank.

Official figures from BGMEA said its members had so far lost more than U.S. $3 billion in orders, while BKMEA said its factories had reported over $2 billion in cancelled contracts.

Around 4,000 Bangladeshi garment factories employ about 4.1 million workers, industry officials said.

On Monday, health authorities reported 497 new coronavirus infections, taking the number of confirmed cases in Bangladesh to 5,913, with seven new fatalities that brought the death toll to 152. Globally, the coronavirus has killed over 208,000 worldwide, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

Shivnath Roy, director-general of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, told BenarNews that more than 300 factories had opened across the nation.

“We will monitor whether the government’s health guidelines are followed in those factories properly,” he said, warning that legal action would be taken against owners of factories found to be in violation of health safety measures.

About 200,000 workers were likely back at work just in the industrial area of Ashulia, near Dhaka, police spokeswoman Jane Alam told Agence France-Presse.

Abdus Salam, BGMEA’s first vice president, told BenarNews that up to 130 factories of the total 326 factories in the coastal city of Chattogram had reopened.

“We are strictly following the government’s health protocols,” he said. “We even advised [factories] to grant leaves of absence for employees who are coming from outside the city. Those who are older than 60 are advised to take rest instead of joining work.”

Labor leaders had complained that reopening factories without adequate protections would place the entire country at risk, not just the garment industry’s workforce.

Citing health experts, Taslima Akter, a labor leader, warned that coronavirus infections could spike further in May, putting employees at risk even with factories reopening on a limited scale.

“In addition to that, the incidents of layoffs and job cuts are going on in phases,” she told BenarNews.

On Monday, meanwhile, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said schools would remain closed until September.

“We’ll not reopen the educational institutions until the pandemic is basically under control though we’ll open other sectors gradually,” Hasina said during a video-conference with administration officials from her residence in Dhaka.

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