Reopening garment factories in Bangladesh despite Covid-19 threat

[12 May, 2020] While the lockdown in Bangladesh continues, over 4,000 garment factories have reopened. It is positive that garment production can start up again. However, Bablur Rahman, Fair Wear’s country representative for Bangladesh, has heard concerning reports. He has seen thousands of workers pouring into industrial belts from their village homes, raising fears of wider transmission of the virus. ‘Some experts have stated that opening factories will do more harm than good.’

Bangladesh’s economy hinges on the garment industry. This period of navigating the Covid-19 pandemic has left many thousands of workers in crisis, and public debate has centred around how to balance economic interests while protecting the health and safety of workers. Many have expressed fears that Bangladesh would lose business to rival garment production countries if they wait too long to get the industry back up and running.

Business may shift

Bangladeshi factories began to reopen on 26 April, following one month of official closure. Why? Because many factory managers feel they have no other option. There have been fears about losing business. Indeed, many neighbouring garment production countries have already opened their economies, like China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Also, buyers from international European and American garment brands have been putting pressure on factory owners to execute their orders. If Bangladesh had not opened its factories, it would be lagging.

Desperate to reach factories

Reopening the factories has not been a smooth process. Eyewitness reports mention that this lacked proper coordination and information-sharing. Thousands of workers left their villages en masse for the industrial regions, sparking worries that the virus could spread further. In the absence of public transport, they travelled by pickup vans and battery-run auto rickshaws, paying two to three times the usual fare to reach their workplaces, an extra cost that would be a burden for many workers, who are already suffering without their regular income.

The Bangladeshi government has stated that factories can only start operations with 30% of their work force, gradually increasing capacity. However, many reopened with over 50% capacity. Worse,many are violating Covid-19 health guidelines by engaging 70-90% of their workforce.As more and more workers continue to return to work, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure social distancing. There is a growing fear of increasing infections among workers.

Echoes of Rana Plaza

Trade union activist Nazma Akter, executive director of Awaj Foundation,stated in a business column of a Bangladeshi newspaper that under the present circumstances, ‘it is much too soon to open factories, but the pressure on us is immense and the government has instructed us to reopen’. She writes: ‘There is nothing more important in this world than the lives and safety of the people making these clothes. Many other countries are putting the health of their citizens first. Bangladesh must do this also.’

Akter draws a comparison with the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed several years ago. ‘Workers are saying the risks are grave and they do not want to go back to work at this moment. It’s like they had said just before the Rana Plaza disaster when the building’s owners ignored warnings to avoid using the building after cracks had appeared the day before.’

Workers seem to have no choice other than rushing back to the factories, running the risk of infection. They may fear losing their jobs. But when we asked some returning workers,they stated that their factory management had called to say they would lose their jobs if they did not return to the factory floor.

Safety guidelines

Now that garment factories are open again, it’s important that the world takes notice of the increasing risks garment workers face. In a letter to the prime minister dated 30 April, IndustriALL Global Union called on the Bangladeshi government to address the health and safety, economic,and social impacts Covid-19 has on workers.

We realise that factory owners, forced to close their doors for weeks, are very eager to start working again. However, it’s crucial that management are aware of the safety guidelines and implement them. Garment brands also play a role in this by raising awareness for these safety measures and by asking how they can be of support.

Also, factories are delaying salary payments for many reasons, including cancelled orders,a lack of brand commitment regarding future orders, proposed discounts on products and requested delay of payments. Without the support of garment brands, workers risk losing their April salaries.

As unionist Nazma Akter said: ‘The consequences of putting competitiveness and profit before workers’ health are too grave. If their health and safety are not protected, there will be no industry left to speak of.’

This pandemic clearly shows that the global garment industry urgently needs to embrace a New Normal, in which fair prices and living wages are the norm. Read more about the impact of the crisis on the garment industry in the Fair Wear Covid-19 dossier.