The significance of May Day is immense for workers worldwide, and more so in the current context.
For Bangladesh, the backbone of whose economy is the readymade garment manufacturing and exports – a labour-intensive sector – the well-being of the workforce is directly connected with the country’s future.
Supplier to all major apparel brands and retailers globally, the industry has suffered a major setback in the wake of the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus. To start with, the mass order cancellations by the Western buyers have had a devastating impact on the industry followed by the country-wide lockdown clamped by the Government that brought the industry to a grinding halt.
After almost a month or so, though the industry has resumed operations on a limited scale, the questions of workers’ safety and order resumptions still remain to be the burning issues! Feelers have started coming in from the leaderships in the West to stand by Bangladesh in these trying times.
Recently, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven had called Sheikh Hasina to pledge his solidarity with Bangladesh and its struggling garment manufacturing sector. “We will continue importing RMG products from Bangladesh,” assured Stefan in his 15-minute-long telephonic conversation with his Bangladesh counterpart. The Bangladesh Premier, as expected, said that Bangladesh is hopeful of meeting the buyers’ orders including that from Sweden despite the current situation in the country due to COVID-19.
Coming close on heels of high street UK retailers like Day’s Peacocks, Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group, Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia, New Look, Asda, Debenhams, etc., cancelling a massive £2.5 billion worth work orders, Stefan Löfven’s assurance did a world of good to soothe the fraying nerves.
Soon followed Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag’s assurance to Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen that apparel buyers from Netherlands would not only stand by Bangladesh, they would not even cancel or suspend any orders that have been placed in Bangladesh.
Already struggling with labour unrest and wage issues, it was but time for the industry to get back to work to salvage the lost business. But as workers started to come back to work, health experts, civil society and labour leaders expressed apprehensions whether the industry would be able to protect its workforce.
“This May Day, we have a bigger fight than we ever imagined. We are also fighting COVID-19, which has led to hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs, losing their pay and fighting with police and factory owners. Now we are demanding job security and social protection, the payment of wages and proper social distancing. Many have still not been paid for March. The situation is so serious – hundreds of thousands of people are now facing immediate risks to their lives and livelihoods,” said Nazma Akter, the Founder and Executive Director of Awaj Foundation, while speaking to Apparel Resources.
Awaj Foundation is a grassroots labour rights’ NGO with over 600,000 worker members from across Bangladesh. Through its projects, services, research and advocacy, the organisation aims to empower workers and enable harmonious industrial relations, with special focus on supporting women workers, who coincidentally form the major chunk of garment workers in the country.
“Under the present circumstances, I think it is too early to open factories, but the pressure on us is immense and the Government has instructed us to reopen industries. Brands are also pushing as some stores in America and Europe are starting to reopen and they want us to go back to work as well,” claimed Nazma.
It maybe mentioned here that different labour organisations claimed that the factories in Dhaka’s Ashulia, Savar, Mirpur, Uttara and in Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chittagong still continued firing or laying off workers. Further, labour leaders who participated in the recent Tripartite Consultative Council meeting agreed to the proposal that RMG factory workers would receive 60 per cent of their gross salaries for the month of April due to the month-long lockdown on the condition that no employees would be terminated. But trade union leaders alleged that many factories continued to terminate workers violating the agreement.
The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) recently sent a list of 938 factories that had announced layoffs, to the Labour Secretary, and out of these 938 factories, 95 per cent are RMG units.
Though a certain section of stakeholders feels that the industry should wait for some time more before resuming work, many economists and experts believe that is not a feasible option considering many of Bangladesh’s competitors like China, Vietnam and the likes have already started work, and if Bangladesh does not follow suit, it might very well mean losing its share in the international market.
In the meanwhile, the apex garment makers’ body the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have already come out with guidelines to protect the workers.
“In the face of an infectious disease outbreak, how we protect our workers now clearly dictates how safe our communities are, and how resilient our businesses will be, as this pandemic evolves,” stated ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, underlining that strong safety and health measures for workers are the first requirements when considering return to workplaces.
Tuomo Poutiainen, Country-Director at the International Labour Organisation, said, “The sustainability of businesses depends on how we protect our workers from COVID-19. To safeguard workers and prevent the transmission of the virus in workplaces, the ILO has developed COVID-19 specific Occupational Safety and Health guidelines, together with the DIFE of Bangladesh. Once endorsed and officially out there, businesses must ensure that they are applied and that management and workers understand them and are equipped to follow them.
Tuomo further added that preventive and protective measures are the most effective ways to keep coronavirus at bay. Hence, ensuring decent working conditions and rights for workers is as important as ever, and to the benefit of society and the economy at large.
As garment factories start to reopen in Bangladesh, every factory will have to face its own unique set of challenges. However, collectively, the most pressing challenge will be to ensure proper health and safety conditions in factories to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Although there is no doubt about the commitment of most factory owners to keep the workers safe, there is a real risk of coronavirus infection in factories as the number of COVID-19 cases is still on the rise in Bangladesh, particularly in densely populated industrial belts, where most of the factories are located, the Country-Director at the ILO underlined.
Keeping with the guidelines, many factories have already implemented the safety protocols while others are working out their plans to keep the workers safe.
“We have not yet started operations. But if things improve, we may think of doing so from May,” Imtiaz Shuvo, General Manager – Marketing and Merchandising, Mahdeen Group told Apparel Resources, adding, “We are already working on the safety measures keeping with the guidelines provided by the BGMEA and WHO.”
It is now to be seen, how soon the industry is able to come out of the present situation, and if or not it is able to keep its workforce safe, secured and engaged productively.