It’s been sometime, 26 April to be exact, since Bangladesh readymade garment (RMG) industry has resumed operations on a limited scale after a protracted nationwide lockdown that halted operations.
But as garment workers have started reporting to work, apprehensions are rising that it could lead to an escalation in coronavirus cases in the country, especially among the garment workers. At the time of filing of the report, Bangladesh’s tally of COVID-19 infections spiralled to 9,455 with body count touching 177 in 24 hours, till 8AM Sunday (26 April).
In the same period after another 665 people tested positive from 5,368 samples, it is the biggest single-day spike so far, underlined the Additional Director General of Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), Nasima Sultana.
Meanwhile, reports are doing the rounds that the number of coronavirus-infected workers in RMG factories is increasing by the day, as many of the units are allegedly running their operations in violation of health and safety guidelines. According to the guidelines of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), RMG factories are supposed to operate with only 30 per cent workers in first phase, but most of the factories are operating with more than 50 per cent workers, alleged the reports adding even some were engaging around 70-90 per cent of their workforce, violating the COVID-19 health guidelines.
On Friday (1 May), seven garment workers in Savar were reportedly found COVID-19 positive, after which the Savar Upazila Health and Family Planning Officer Dr. Saimul Huda maintained that factories in the area should remain closed in order to contain the spread of the epidemic.
“After we sent 51 samples for testing on Thursday (30 April), eight results came back as positive, of which, seven are RMG workers,” informed Dr. Saimul, adding, “The coronavirus situation has been worsening by the day since the lockdown was lifted and the garment factories were reopened in Savar. If the factories aren’t kept closed and the area isn’t kept under lockdown, the situation may turn dangerous.”
He further said that Savar is an industrial area and is inhabited by workers, resulting in informal crowded urban settlements. “The number of COVID-19 cases has been increasing since the factories were opened. That’s why I have sent a letter to the UNO requesting the local administration’s intervention in keeping the factories shut.”
The committee on coronavirus protection at Savar on Saturday (2 May) held a meeting on the issue and decided to monitor the garment factories strictly, so that they comply with the health guidelines.
Labour leaders, however, demanded the details of the seven corona-infected garment workers in Savar be revealed while underlining that factories in which the infected workers worked should be closed down immediately.
Bangladesh Garment Shramik Sanghati President Taslima Akhter and General Secretary Julhas Nayeen Babu, in a statement, said the infected workers were working in three garment factories, which were still open. The organisation further claimed that factory authorities were trying to conceal the information of these factories.
The labour leaders alleged that many of the factories were not complying with health guidelines, as no arrangements were made for washing hands and maintaining social distancing norms.
Earlier, at least four RMG workers reportedly tested positive for coronavirus after they resumed work in Rangpur, Jashore, Chittagong and Pirojpur.
Meanwhile, in an effort to curb the flow of people into capital Dhaka claiming as garment workers, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) ordered all workers to show their identity cards when entering Dhaka from outside.
“If workers need to enter Dhaka for work, they must carry their identify cards and show them to the concerned authorities,” said a handout from DIFE, an affiliated organisation under the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Without ID cards, workers will not get permission at ferry terminals or other entry points to Dhaka, it said.
The apex garment makers’ body in the country is also doing its bit to ensure factories stick to the safety protocols. It recently even carried out a health and safety audit in 147 units, of which 144 were found in satisfactory level. A spokesperson said the BGMEA’s audit teams, headed by six directors, inspected a total of 147 factories so far.
“The other three need improvements in terms of density,” the spokesperson added, underlining that the three factories have been suggested immediate corrective action plans to resume operations.
Earlier, BGMEA formed six committees to inspect health safety of member factories amidst the coronavirus outbreak in the country. The six directors of the association are leading the monitoring of factories in six different zones of the country to curb the COVID-19 spread in apparel factories.
The BGMEA spokesperson said the audit teams have been paying sudden visit to factories in Dhaka Metropolitan, Savar, Ashulia, two zones in Gazipur, and Narayanganj and Narsingdi.
“The reports of the audit teams are being evaluated every day,” he added. Meanwhile, garment factory owners have also initiated a process to set up four testing labs in Ashulia-Savar, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chittagong for detecting coronavirus among workers. These tests will be done free of cost. Besides, workers of other sectors would also get access to test COVID-19 free of cost there, said BGMEA officials.
Bangladesh’s Health and Family Welfare Ministry has also swung into action to rein in the situation. The Health and Family Welfare Minister Zahid Maleque said a national committee would be formed soon to monitor whether or not health guidelines were being followed at apparel factories.
The Minister said there would be small teams in zonal or factory level to ensure health guidelines including physical distancing. The teams would monitor and report to the proposed national committee, he added.
“The national committee will oversee all activities of factory-level teams to ensure that health regulations are being followed strictly,” Zahid underlined, adding if infection was found in any factory, it would be shut down right away.
The ministry is also planning to introduce testing facilities at industrial belts to ensure any outbreak of the dreaded virus amongst garment workers could be detected and arrested at the earliest possible.
Considering the situation at hand, infection of garment workers that could escalate the spread of epidemic further is the last thing the garment manufacturing sector of the country could least afford now.