Some recent reports suggest many garment workers who lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus pandemic are being rehired but at lower wages. The allegations gain currency even as many factories are said to be opting for downsizing their operations due to the current business situation, thereby putting workers in a dilemma.
“Since there is enough supply of workers, the factory owners are taking the advantage by offering low wages,” reportedly alleged Secretary of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, Nahidul Islam Noyon while speaking to the media even as factory owners and the BGMEA have denied such allegations.
“First of all, we do not have any idea about the credibility of such allegations and the magnitude of such incidents,” reportedly maintained the BGMEA President Dr. Rubana Huq, adding, “Secondly, factories are to operate within the legal perimeter and in no circumstances should violate laws, rules and regulations of the country.”
A large number of garment workers are said to have lost their jobs during the Coronavirus pandemic. Though, the exact number of retrenched workers remains widely debated, various accounts suggest the number of such workers to be rather significant.
If trade union leaders are to be believed, more than 2 lakh workers lost their jobs due to pandemic while a more recent study underlined that more than 3.57 lakh workers of Bangladesh’s readymade garment (RMG) sector lost their jobs amid the pandemic even as according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the number of workers who were laid off is reportedly about 70,000 while 101 knitwear factories that are said to be members of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), allegedly laid off another 25,000 workers.
Meanwhile, according to reports, which cited Industrial Police, around about 10,000 apparel workers have lost their jobs in Gazipur during the pandemic even as allegations are abound that many factories continued to reduce their workforce later on as well, as they reportedly had to downsize their operations due to the current business situation.
Despite this, many garment workers, who are said to have left for their native places after being laid off, are now getting rehired. According to the President of Bangladesh Garment Workers Alliance Konabari Committee, Md Ashrafuzzaman, most of the workers went back to their villages after the general holiday was announced in March 2020, who went on to add that three types of workers – pregnant workers, aged workers and those with less than one year of service – were laid off during the COVID-19 crisis.
Once things started to improve and factories resumed operations, the workers who had left for their villages returned to the industrial hubs and the good news is many are now being rehired as well but there is a catch. Some reports, which cited apparel workers, allege that even if the workers are being rehired, it is at lower wages.
“My salary is now Taka 10,000. I got the job because I had some experience. The salary is lower than before, but I had no other option. It is very hard to manage my family expenditures with this amount,” alleged a garment worker interacting with the media and, going by various reports, there are many such workers who apparently have had to compromise in terms of wages, to be rehired.
We hope the trade associations would take steps to stop such malpractice,” Nahidul said even as the President of Bangladesh National Garments Workers Employees League, Sirajul Islam Rony, while underlining that workers should be treated as per their experience for the sake of the apparel industry’s sustainability and productivity, said, “The factory owners are disregarding this. We talked to some of the owners, who said that they were suffering as the work orders were inadequate in comparison to capacity, while the cancellation during the pandemic left them in a fix.”
It may be mentioned here that garment makers have had to face largescale order cancellations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic by the global brands and retailers, a large chunk of which has since been reinstated, as per reports. Nevertheless, exports failed to make much of a headway. Bangladesh’s overall exports in 2020 fell by 14.57 per cent to US $ 33.60 billion from what was US $ 39.33 billion in the previous year even as garment export decreased by 16.94 per cent to US $ 27.47 billion from that of US $ 33.07 billion in 2019.
According to EPB data, out of the US $ 27.47 billion earnings from RMG in 2020, US $ 11.92 billion came in the January-June period and US $ 15.54 billion in the July-December period.
Garment exporters also had to deal with requests for discounts and extended payment terms even as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the West made things worse for the exporters so much so that in the July-December period of the financial year 2020-21, seven countries amongst Bangladesh’s top 10 export destinations recorded negative growth. As the economic activities took a hit subsequent to the outbreak of the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic in the West, apparel exports to majority of the overseas destinations including France, USA, Spain and the United Kingdom witnessed negative growth in the same period, as per the EPB data.
Exports to the USA (the largest export destination for Bangladesh) in July-December of FY ’21 declined by 2.56 per cent to US $ 2.90 billion from what was US $ 2.98 billion in the same period of FY ’20 while exports to the United Kingdom (the third highest export destination for Bangladesh), declined by 4.15 per cent to US $ 1.77 billion in July-December of FY ’21 from that of US $ 1.85 billion in the same period of FY ’20.
Exports to Spain in the said period fell by 8.84 per cent to US $ 1.11 billion while exports to France in the first half of FY ’21 went down by 3.97 per cent to US $ 875.54 million from US $ 911.74 million while apparel exports to Japan in the July-December period of FY ’21 reportedly declined by 15.88 per cent to US $ 445.18 million from that of US $ 529.23 million in the same period of FY ’20 whereas garment exports to Italy in the period declined by 10.98 per cent to US $ 608.95 million even as exports to Canada also reportedly fell by 2.23 per cent to US $ 487.02 million.
The figures, as is seen, does not draw a very rosy picture of the current situation of the industry. However, as to the allegations of workers being rehired but at lower rates, both the factory owners and the BGMEA have denied such allegations.
“We are against exploitation of any form. But such an allegation needs a reality check on the overall economic scenario, which has been heavily disrupted by the pandemic,” stated the BGMEA President.
So, going by the claims and counterclaims as put forth by the stakeholders, it would be hasty to say with certainty if workers are being rehired at lower wages, the answer to which perhaps would become clear only with time.