The coronavirus pandemic is exacting a huge toll on people’s lives and businesses the world over. Home to an estimated 164.8 million people and an apparel manufacturing powerhouse catering to all the prominent global brands and retailers from across the geographical locations, Bangladesh has experienced devastating impact on its businesses. Not to mention the general population with the total number of coronavirus cases in the country reportedly reaching 3,52,287 already and the death toll from the virus touching 5,044 as of Wednesday (23 September) morning.
The socio-economic impact of the same on the employed class, especially the garment workers – credited with propelling the RMG sector, which is the lifeline to the country’s economy – has been severe.
As per a recent global index, Bangladesh for the first time has been placed in the ‘extreme risk’ category of slipping into modern slavery in the garment manufacturing sector.
For the first time, India and Bangladesh were in the ‘extreme risk’ category, joining China and Myanmar in a group of 32 countries with the worst risk of slave labour, as per the Modern Slavery index by risk analytics company Verisk Maplecroft, which underlined that the risk of modern slavery in Asian manufacturing hubs has surged and is set to worsen with the economic impact of the pandemic, increased labour rights violations and poor law enforcement.
It is not only Bangladesh; the risks faced by workers in Cambodia and Vietnam also rose to their highest in 4 years, taking 32nd and 35th places in the ranking of 198 countries which identified North Korea, Yemen and Syria as the three worst nations for slave labour.
“What makes the situation even more alarming is that modern slavery risks are set to intensify as countries grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic,” said Sofia Nazalya, a human rights analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, adding “As more workers are pushed into the informal sector, they will be at greater risk of facing more exploitative forms of work, some of which could amount to forced labour conditions.”
Asian garment workers supplying global fashion brands lost up to US $ 5.8 billion in wages from March to May, the Clean Clothes Campaign pressure group said last month, as COVID-19 led to store closures and cancelled orders, and Bangladesh in particular had been at the receiving end after global buyers cancelled orders in huge quantities; even though a good part of the cancelled order is said to have been reinstated later on. However, it was already a case of too little, too late with experts now saying that falling sales have put many jobs at risk with laid-off workers likely to turn to exploitative jobs or may put their children to work to cope with the loss of earnings in Asia’s garment industry, which employs around 60 million people.
Findings of another recent survey carried by the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) and the Microfinance Opportunities (MFO) underlined that the coronavirus outbreak has affected the livelihoods of 82 per cent of readymade garment workers in Bangladesh with more than half of the affected workers forced to spend savings and borrow money to cover their expenses.
SANEM is a non-profit research organisation and also a network of economists and policy makers in South Asia with a special emphasis on economic modelling which aims to promote the production, exchange and dissemination of basic research knowledge in the areas of international trade, macro economy, poverty, labour market, environment, political economy and economic modelling.
In response to the survey’s questions on the impact of the ongoing pandemic, only 18 per cent of the respondents reported that the COVID-19 crisis had no impact on their livelihoods, while the remaining respondents reported at least some impact. It showed that 25 per cent of the surveyed workers had been forced to spend savings, and 18 per cent were borrowing money to cover their expenses. It also found that 15 per cent of RMG workers had disobeyed quarantine rules to earn an income and 9 per cent relied on extended family assistance due to the pandemic.
The report further identified that as the impact of the pandemic, many RMG workers moved to cheaper places, looked for another jobs, moved back to their hometowns and sold assets to cover expenses.
To assess the impact of the ongoing pandemic on the overall working and living conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh, the SANEM, in partnership with the MFO, conducted the survey under a project titled ‘Garment Worker Diaries’.
Around 1,269 workers, who were employed in factories located in the manufacturing hubs of Chittagong, Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Savar, were interviewed to collect the data.
Meanwhile, as per another survey, findings of which have been contested by the garment makers, and labour leaders also accepting that the study in question had some limitations, the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) stated that a total of 3,24,684 workers of the readymade garments sector have become unemployed during the pandemic in Bangladesh and around 1,915 RMG factories have shut down or laid-off workers during this time.
Moreover, some 60 per cent of the workers were apprehending losing their jobs as a fallout of coronavirus, the report stated.
The BILS higher-ups said the study was carried out with information provided by the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE), the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the Industrial Police.
However, both DIFE and BGMEA said the number of layoffs and shuttering was not as high as was presented in the study.
Established in 1995, BILS endeavours to uphold the causes of working people and trade unions of Bangladesh and has 12 major national trade union federations associated with it. Protecting worker rights is the main objective of BILS and it reportedly strives to promote just that and worker-friendly policies and laws in the country, while also emphasising on capacity building of the trade unions through trainings, research and information sharing.
Meanwhile, according Rezwan Selim, a Director of BGMEA who handles labour issues and factory shutdowns, around 300 small and medium factories, most of which work on subcontracts, reportedly had shut down during the study period.
These small BGMEA-member factories could not avail Government’s soft loans at 2 per cent service charge as they could not fulfil a lot of the terms and conditions, he said.
About 48,000 workers have reportedly lost their jobs in and around Dhaka and they are from the subcontracting factories that were not receiving work orders from their mother factories.
Further, as per DIFE, about 26,000 workers were terminated during this pandemic.
The Vice Chairman of BILS Amirul Haque Amin too accepted the report should have contained the latest updates, while adding that many of the sector’s positive facts have not been reflected in it.
Even though one can raise questions on the accuracy of the BILS’ figures, as it does not contain the latest updates (as accepted by the Vice Chairman of BILS), it definitely cannot be denied that the lives of garment workers have undoubtedly been impacted by the pandemic as much as it has affected the garment makers. Cases of labour unrest, on account of being laid off or allegedly not being paid their dues, have been hitting the headlines on and off with the latest reportedly being that of the Dragon Group. The alleged terminated workers of two sweater factories of the group reportedly threatened to besiege the Shrama Bhaban over outstanding payment of provident fund money, earned leaves and service benefits earlier in August.
The Managing Director of the company has, however, alleged that workers and labour leaders were trying to tarnish the image of the company both in the country and abroad, while adding that the company has paid wages to the workers for a period of 3 months when the factory was kept shut as per the Government’s instructions before deciding on laying off some workers who were unable to return to work even after work resumed in the factory.
But, speaking to the media, Jolly Talukder, General Secretary, Garment Workers Trade Union Centre (a platform for garment workers), reportedly underlined that around 500 to 600 workers terminated by the company (Dragon Group) have not been paid properly.
The Managing Director should pay his workers and staff properly, as every worker deserves legal payment by the employer, Jolly maintained reportedly.
Going by the present turn of events, garment workers’ livelihoods, not only in Bangladesh but all the garment manufacturing destinations across the globe would have to go through some upheavals and hardships, it seems, before things get back to normal once again.