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Covid-19, job cuts and misery for Bangladesh's garment workers

Church charity extends a helping hand as millions are mired in poverty

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Covid-19, job cuts and misery for Bangladesh's garment workers

Thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 outbreak and continue to live in misery due to loss of income. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)    

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Twelve years ago, Maloti Mondol left her village in Chuknagar in Bangladesh's Jessore district with her husband and three children to escape poverty.

The family settled in Savar, an industrial suburb about 25 kilometers north of capital Dhaka, and found jobs in one of the many garment factories as sewing operators.

The employment enabled them to overcome poverty, maintain the family well and send their children to school.

“In the past years, we changed jobs at least five times for various reasons. We have never been jobless. For the first time in April this year, we have been terminated due to a drop in factory production and business over the coronavirus,” Maloti, 35, a Catholic, told UCA News.

Altogether, the couple could make about 25,000 taka (US$295) per month in Savar. The loss of jobs meant they were no longer able to pay the rent and cover daily expenses.

Within a month, they returned to their village home where Maloti’s husband started pulling a rickshaw-van that can fetch about 300 taka per day.

“We had a good income and better life in Savar. Now we face difficulties running a family with poor income from just one. Schools and colleges are closed due to the coronavirus, and we don’t know what will happen when those reopen. If we remain jobless, we won’t be able to support the education of our children,” Maloti lamented.

During this crisis, the family received 5,000 taka from the government aid package for the poor. They have also received some food aid and 1,600 taka from Catholic charity Caritas.

“We have nothing left in hand now. We have been desperately contacting people to find jobs again,” she added.

Quality controller turns day laborer

Sabuj Biswas, 29, is an ethnic Paharia Catholic from Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Ghoraghat in Dinajpur district. Until April, he had been employed as a quality controller at a garment factory in Gazipur district, another industrial hub near Dhaka.

Including regular pay and overtime, Sabuj could earn about 20,000 taka per month. After keeping some for himself, he used to send money to his family back home.

The eldest son and only breadwinner of a family of six, Sabuj has also returned home after losing his job. He and his 16-year-old brother have become daily-wagers to support the family.

“Day labor is also scarce in the area. If I can find work, I can earn about 350 taka per day. I feel sad that my young brother has also been forced to work,” Sabuj told UCA News.

Sabuj’s family received 1,600 taka for Covid-19 support from the Church, while an NGO offered food aid including rice, lentils, wheat, oil and sugar.

He is upset that garment factories summarily dismissed many workers like him in the absence of a permanent contract.

“Factories run on our labor, but we have been left out during the crisis without any compensation. All workers need to have permanent contracts so that we can claim compensation for job cuts,” he said.

Like Maloti and Sabuj, thousands of workers have lost jobs in Bangladesh’s $30 billion export-oriented garment industry since Covid-19 hit the local and global economies. The workers are facing hard times and still struggling to find work.

Vital industry reels from Covid-19

About 70,000 workers have been terminated from garment factories since April as the industry lost over $3.5 billion in orders, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the main trade body.

Bangladesh’s garment industry is the second largest after China’s and its largest industrial employer with about 4 million workers, the majority of them poor rural women. The industry is a lifeline for this South Asian nation as it accounts for about 80 percent of annual foreign exchange.

Job cuts have started hitting workers since March after the government announced a nationwide shutdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak. After remaining shut for nearly two months, hundreds of factories in industrial zones started reopening from April 26.

At the end of March, the government announced a special stimulus package of 50 billion taka for export-oriented industries including the garment sector, noting that the amount would be paid to workers for their salaries up to three months. The amount should be returned with only 2 percent interest after two years, plus a six-month grace period for inability to pay.

Trade unionists say the real scenario regarding lay-offs and job cuts during the pandemic is far worse than reported.

“In our estimate about 150,000 workers have lost jobs already and termination continues every day. Moreover, senior workers who toiled in the industry for many years have seen their salaries cut significantly,” Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, told UCA News.

He regretted that workers have been dismissed without compensation despite owners having a stimulus package. He says it has thrown them into destitution and they have not been rehired even though the industry has bounced back.

“Without job security, workers suffer and in the long run it won’t do any good for the industry,” he added.

BGMEA leaders say job cuts had be carried out in special circumstances for the survival of the industry.

“It is true factories have terminated workers because of loss of production and business. Many factories are still counting losses, making it impossible for them to keep a regular workforce. Once the factories get regular orders and have good business, workers will be rehired and former workers will get preference,” Mohiuddin Rubel, a director of BGMEA, told UCA News.

Besides government aid packages, various NGOs and charities have been supporting jobless workers.

James Gomes, director (programs) at Caritas Bangladesh, said there is no specific project for jobless people but they are included in ongoing Covid-19 aid schemes.

“In 10 urban areas, we are providing support to 22,000 needy and poor families and they include garment workers who lost jobs during the outbreak. It is true jobless workers are facing miserable lives and garment factory owners need to pay attention to their plight,” Gomes told UCA News.

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