Even as the menace of COVID-19 continues still, its intensity seems to have lost steam in many parts across the globe thereby allowing things to, slowly but surely, move towards normalcy, backed strongly by the mass vaccination drives in numerous countries of the world by now.
Bangladesh, in particular, have had to bear serious fallouts, especially during the last wave, when many people are said to have lost their lives to the dreaded virus. It was thus natural that Bangladesh Government would put in place curbs and restrictions to try stem the spread of the disease, which it did in the right earnest by imposing countrywide lockdown. Even as the lockdown has been continuing for some time already (since 28 June), all export-oriented industries including the readymade garment sector have been kept out of its purview. In between though, the restrictions were relaxed for a brief period while keeping in mind the holy festival of Eid-ul-Azha.
However, the Government reimposed strict lockdown from 6.00 am of 23 July to midnight of 5 August and this time around, there was no exception for any sector or industries.
Meanwhile, even as the lockdown was continuing, reports started emerging that many apparel buyers had started shifting orders from Bangladesh to other countries or were contemplating to do so. Plus, there were also apprehensions of labour unrest as well as labour leaders underlined if the Government does not allow factory reopening, salary cuts and delayed payments in the name of labour law would meet with strong protests.
Keeping in mind the importance of the apparel industry in terms of foreign currency earnings and its unparallel contributions in running the economy of the country while also employing lakhs of people gainfully, it was but very much expected the Government would rethink its decision, more so considering the relentless appeals of the garment makers. Also, to be taken into consideration in this regard is the impact of the protracted Covid restrictions of last year when the garment industry in Bangladesh remained closed even if buyers and retailers world-over shut down operations, resulting in mass order cancellations, workers’ retrenchment, payment defaults, from the impact of which many garment exporters are reeling still.
However, after prolonged uncertainty and ending all speculations, export-oriented industries resumed operation ultimately on the 10th day of the stringent lockdown. Amid warnings against Covid surge, workers started returning to their workplaces to resume work even as a Cabinet Division circular on the day said that the country’s export-oriented industries would stay out of the purview of the restrictions from 6:00 am on 1 August while the Government allowed the export-oriented sectors to resume production a day after the demand from the factory owners to reopen their units immediately, which came at the back of the country’s apparel and textile factory owners holding a meeting with Cabinet Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam at the Bangladesh Secretariat where they reiterated their demand that they should be allowed to reopen their factories immediately for the ‘sake of the economy and livelihoods’. The garment makers had earlier also called upon the Government to allow operation of the export-oriented factories during the fresh restrictions to ‘avert an export tumble and bankruptcy of entrepreneurs’.
But, as workers, who were by then at their ancestral villages on account of Eid holidays, started to come back to the manufacturing hubs of Dhaka and its adjacent areas, it gave rise to fears that Covid cases, especially amongst the garment workers, were all set to increase substantially.
Not only the health experts, even the country’s Health Minister also reportedly expressed apprehensions about the same when he maintained, “Livelihoods are necessary for life. Nevertheless, you need to be alive to work…We’ve to strike a balance between the two and the Government has to keep everything in mind.”
Health Minister Zahid Maleque, while interacting with the media, further reportedly added, “Workers from different parts of the country have joined their workplaces as garment factories reopened today…They did not follow the health safety rules. As a result, the Coronavirus infections will rise further.”
However, despite such apprehensions, it’s been more than a month now but there have been no reports in the media as to any significant increase in cases of COVID-19 amongst the garment workers, and the credit for this perhaps goes to the manufacturing units and the apparel manufacturing bodies of the country.
If individual factories have been maintaining the necessary and strict health protocols to prevent the spread of the virus, the apex garment makers’ body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) which has taken up the issue of treating the garment workers as front liners with the Government while also bring them under the purview of the vaccination programme on priority, is to be credited for the same.
BGMEA’s stand on this issue is understandable considering the fact that workers are the pillars of the industry and it cannot run without the workers while on the other hand maintaining safety protocols in workplaces is just a precaution. Vaccination can help prevent the disease and, as has been underlined by doctors and health experts worldwide, it definitely cuts down the chances of hospitalisation and mortality. Given the fact that most of the garment workers have to travel from their respective residential areas, which are at best congested, to workplaces, there’s perhaps no substitute for vaccinating them.
As per media reports, BGMEA President Faruque Hassan has written letters to US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R Miller, EU Ambassador Rensje Teerink and also Marks and Spencer Country Director Shwapna Bhowmick seeking support from the US and the European Union (EU) in vaccinating the country’s garment workers against COVID-19 even as he maintained mass vaccination of garment workers was the only way to protect the industry which was vital to the national economy.
As per reports, the apex garment makers’ body in the country also sent a letter in this direction to the Health Services Division requesting vaccination of the garment workers as well as foreign nationals who are working in the country’s apparel sector.
The BGMEA President has also called upon the Health Minister and requested the minister concerned to vaccinate the garment workers on a priority basis.
“… We have sought vaccinations for 39 lakh workers and 800 foreign officials,” reportedly, confirmed BGMEA Vice-President Md. Shahidullah Azim while speaking to the media even as reports citing sources underlined the Health Minister has ensured garment workers would be prioritised for vaccination subject to sufficient supply of vaccines.
Ultimately, the mass vaccination of RMG workers started from 8 August even as BGMEA leaders added lists of the workers under the BGMEA enlisted factories which were sent to the concerned civil surgeon offices and the end workers of the RMG factories are being administered with vaccines under the supervision of concerned civil surgeon offices.
“We hope that large-scale vaccination of RMG workers will start on due time,” underlined the BGMEA President then while adding the RMG workers of Chittagong EPZ would be given vaccines on 8 August, following the other factory workers in phases even as community clinics would support the vaccination drive while the vaccination of the RMG workers actually began on 18 July itself with vaccines being administered to workers of four factories in Gazipur even as around 29,000 RMG workers have already been given vaccines without registration.
The workers of the factories which were brought under vaccination were Tusuka Denim, Tusuka Washing of Konabari, Sparrow Apparels of Gazipur and Rose Valley Garments of Bhogra area before it paused for some time on account of Eid vacation and lockdown and resumed from 8 August again and this time on a much wider scale.
“The workers of all factories in all regions will be asked to bring their original NID cards on a certain date for vaccination in coordination with local health authorities,” Md Shahidullah Azim, underlined adding workers of all garment factories in all regions of Bangladesh would be inoculated in the same way.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) has also asked garment factory owners to apply for COVID-19 vaccine to inoculate the workers even as it asked the factory owners to write applications to the District Commissioner (inside Narayanganj District) and civil surgeons of other districts for the vaccine doses.
The BKMEA also proposed a five-point recommendation for the factory owners including writing application with workers details and sent it to the District Commissioner and civil surgeons.
So, even as the garment makers’ bodies started the vaccination in the right earnest, the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina intervened to direct the authorities concerned to take a separate programme to bring the industrial workers and their family members under the vaccination coverage even as she ordered to consider for reducing the existing two-month duration between two doses of inoculation.
She gave these directives at the weekly cabinet meeting held at the Secretariat.
“A special discussion was held over the industrial workers (in the meeting) . . . Since Bangladesh would get six crore more doses of vaccine from Sinopharm as per an agreement signed by the Health Ministry, the Prime Minister gave an instruction to vaccinate the workers quickly,” said Cabinet Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam briefing the media while underlining that the Prime Minister would herself oversee the matter.
“She (the Prime Minister) has given instruction to vaccinate not only the workers but also their family members,” further added Anwarul Islam while underlining the Prime Minister also directed the relevant authorities to consider if it would be possible to shorten the existing two-month duration between two doses of inoculation on the basis of recommendation of the national technical advisory committee on COVID-19.
So, at last, the renewed efforts of BGMEA towards vaccinating the garment workers seemed to have paid off after the country’s Prime Minister decided to not only vaccinate the industrial workers and their family members on priority but also keep track of things herself.