Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest exporter of readymade garments, saw hundreds of garment factory workers defying a nationwide lockdown to reopen on Sunday, April 26. These factories had shut their doors in late March to abide by the rules of the coronavirus lockdown in the country, but according to AFP, some suppliers said they were now being pushed by retailers to fulfill outstanding export orders.
The sector—which accounts for around 80 percent of the country's manufacturing income and has at least 4 million workers depending on it—faces ruin as big-name international fashion brands cancel or hold up billions of dollars due to the pandemic. The country's garment sector depends hugely on export orders, which have drastically decreased due to the coronavirus pandemic. So far, Bangladesh has lost around one and a half billion dollars, impacting more than 1.2 million workers.
Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) Vice President Mohammad Hatem’s MB Knit company has reopened part of a factory that makes clothing for Britain's Primark and several other retailers. "We have to accept coronavirus as part of life. If we don't open factories, there will be an economic crisis," Hatem told AFP. Hatem also added that factories were "under pressure" from brands to meet export deadlines and feared the risk that billions in orders could be diverted to competing operations in countries like Vietnam or China.
Textile workers in Dhaka also took to the streets on Sunday demanding wages—defying social distancing norms amid a nationwide lockdown. Hundreds of these factories have resumed operations over the weekend in the industrial areas of Gazipur and Ashulia, just outside the capital Dhaka. Some 200,000 workers were likely back at work just in Ashulia, police spokeswoman Jane Alam told AFP, raising fears that the industry's vulnerable and largely female workforce could be exposed to the contagion.
This also gives rise to questions of ethics in the garment industry. A garment factory Rana Plaza, supplying to brands like Benetton, Gucci, Versace, and Walmart, collapsed in the capital seven years ago and killed more than 1,100 people—that led to an outcry about ethics in the industry with nearly 200 brands and more than 1,600 factories signing an agreement promoting safe working environments for workers. "The impact of opening factories during the pandemic could be worse than the Rana Plaza incident," said activist Kalpona Akter to AFP.
Penn State University's Center for Global Workers' Rights surveyed Bangladesh suppliers and found that more than 98 percent of buyers—who are mostly American and European brands—refused to contribute to the partial wages of furloughed workers that the law requires. The buyers are contractually obliged to cover the total costs of the goods they ordered, including 16 percent for paying salaries, says BGMEA. Only a few brands, including H&M, Walmart and Primark, have agreed to pay in part or in full for the goods they’ve already ordered.
Last month, the government had launched a $558 million stimulus package to help companies in the crucial garments sector to pay their staff during the pandemic, but manufacturers claim this amount was insufficient and went to factory owners instead of the workers. Mofazzal Hossain, a worker in one of the factories, told AFP that he felt compelled to return to his factory, where he earns $115 (₹8,700) a month. "The fear of coronavirus is there, but I am now more worried about losing my job, wages and benefits."
Follow Satviki on Instagram.