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Covid-19 fears as Bangladesh garment factories reopen

Operators accused of putting profits before their workers' lives as infections increase

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Covid-19 fears as Bangladesh garment factories reopen

Workers rush out of a factory during a lunch break in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka in 2017. Hundreds of garment factories have reopened in the country amid a nationwide Covid-19 shutdown. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Thousands of workers are back in work at hundreds of Bangladeshi garment factories, triggering fears about fatal consequences as the country records a rise in Covid-19 cases.

More than 1,000 textile and dyeing factories reopened in major industrial hubs near capital Dhaka and in the districts of Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chittagong on April 26.

The factories were allowed to reopen nearly a month after Bangladesh enforced a nationwide shutdown after a presumed consensus between the government and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the main trade body.

The government has created stimulus packages worth millions of dollars for export-oriented industries including the garment sector.

Local media reported with photos and videos that health and safety measures or social distancing were not being followed in the reopened factories.

Rights activists and analysts have slammed the decision to reopen the factories.

“Factory owners say the industry cannot survive if factories remain closed and foreign buyers move away as some competing countries have withdrawn coronavirus lockdowns. Workers have no choice — they must return to work to save jobs and earn money to survive with their families,” Babul Akhter, president of Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, told UCA News.

It is impossible to maintain safety and social distancing in factories, especially in sewing sections, leaving workers vulnerable to infection, he noted.

“Owners care more about business and not about the lives of workers. This is a life-and-death situation for workers, and there is no one but Allah to save poor workers,” Akhter said.

Father Albert T. Rozario, parish priest of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Savar, an industrial hub near Dhaka, also criticized factories for reopening.

“This is an untimely, inappropriate and frustrating decision. So far, the government was doing everything right, but now things will get worse as workers hail from all over the country and an infection would put millions of lives at grave risk,” Father Rozario, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dhaka Archdiocese, told UCA News.

Many Catholics in St. Joseph’s Parish have rented accommodation to garment workers, which poses great risks for the community, the priest noted. “We are extremely scared about a looming disaster,” he said.

Religiously sensitive

The decision to reopen factories is religiously sensitive in Muslim-majority Bangladesh as mosques remain closed but factories opened even during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“I saw Muslims fuming on social media about why the government allowed opening factories when mosques are closed. This anger may not go down well for the government,” Father Rozario added.

M.A. Rahim, vice-president of BGMEA, said the reopening was a question of survival for the industry.

“The government decision will help the survival of the industry, which was already under tremendous pressure due to the deadly virus outbreak. We have had work orders lost and withheld, and our shipments for April piled up. Now we can make up a bit by delivering products late,” Rahim told UCA News.

The government stimulus package cannot cover the disastrous and irreparable losses if the industry was kept shut for months, Rahim noted.

The reopening was on a small scale and the BGMEA had issued guidelines for health and safety for operations, while a BGMEA task force will monitor whether member factories are following instructions, he said.

Rahim, managing director of DBL group, said about 6,000 out of a total of 36,000 workers in the group’s eight factories have returned to work and about 10,000 are expected to return next week.

“We have told workers outside their work stations not to come back and ensured they won’t be laid off and their salaries won’t be cut. We have taken the necessary safety measures to protect those back at work,” he added.

Bangladesh’s US$30 billion garment industry is the world’s second largest after China’s thanks to cheap labor and an abundance of investments. The industry employs about four million workers in up to 5,000 factories and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s annual export income.

Garment factory owners have considerable financial and political clout, which made it possible to reopen factories, analysts say.

“It was not dictated by science but by greed and politics,” said Ali Riaz, a US-based Bangladeshi political commentator.

Bangladesh has been recording hundreds of new Covid-19 cases every day and infected patients have been found in 60 out of the country’s 64 districts.

Bangladesh had recorded 5,913 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 152 deaths as of April 27, according to the state-run Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research.

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