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Bangladesh

Pandemic ruins lives of helpless Bangladeshi garment workers

Catholic official accuses factory owners of using Covid-19 as an excuse to exploit workers and violate their rights

Pandemic ruins lives of helpless Bangladeshi garment workers

Workers sew clothes at a garment factory in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. A recent survey revealed that millions of garment workers have suffered job losses or pay cuts during the pandemic. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Five years ago, Ripa Costa moved to Ashulia, an industrial hub about 20 kilometers from Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, with her husband and son to take a better-paying job in a garment factory.

The 32-year-old Catholic mother, who hails from Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bonpara in Natore district, has been a garment worker since 2009. Her husband runs a tea stall to support the family.

In Ashulia, Ripa earned about 15,000 taka (US$177) a month including overtime as a sewing operator. While her husband’s income paid for daily essentials, Ripa’s salary covered the rent of 7,000 taka for a one-room house, utilities and school expenses for their son.

About a year ago, when Covid-19 struck Bangladesh and the export-oriented garment industry started losing orders from international brands, the family’s ordeal started.

Ripa’s employer reduced her salary by a third to 10,000 taka. Meanwhile, her husband’s tea stall struggled as the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, restrictions on movement and gatherings.

“We had a happy family life before Covid-19. It has changed drastically since then and the troubles still continue,” Ripa told UCA News.

Many thousands of workers lost jobs and depleted their savings without having a safety net to fall back on

She lamented that her husband has been incurring losses from his tea stall because of the lack of customers. Moreover, due to the ongoing lockdown, he opens the stall sporadically to avoid police harassment.

The young mother says the family is having a hard time. “We had some savings as I was saving for my son's future studies. I have spent those savings because my husband's income has become irregular and my salary has been reduced. Now we have no extra money. The future of our child is also uncertain.”

The family’s miserable situation resonates across Bangladesh’s US$30 billion garment industry and millions of workers have suffered pay cuts of up to 35 percent, according to a recent report.

The report, “The Weakest Link in the Global Supply Chain: How the Pandemic is Affecting Bangladesh's Garment Workers,” was produced by the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies, University of California (Berkeley) and the Institute for Human Rights and Business. Released on April 29, it was supported by UNDP Bangladesh and the Swedish government.

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The study says that many Bangladeshi garment factories supplying to international brands consolidated their business, but many thousands of workers lost jobs and depleted their savings without having a safety net to fall back on.

"While the industry suffered from the closure of markets, suspended shipments, delayed payments and a liquidity crisis, Bangladeshi workers suffered what was in effect a 35 percent pay cut during the lockdown month," the study reads.

The study is based on in-depth interviews conducted between October 2020 and February 2021 with senior executives from international brands, Bangladeshi suppliers, representatives of international civil society and Bangladeshi labor activists.

The government announced a nationwide lockdown beginning March 26 and instituted a social distancing mandate in an attempt to contain the spread of Covid-19. All garment factories stopped work. Orders and financial payments were delayed, then stopped. In less than a month, the government was forced to allow the reopening of thousands of garment factories.

The study found that workers who have suffered disproportionately from the volatility in the garment industry were once again the most vulnerable victims of the pandemic.

The impact of brands’ negative response to the pandemic was disastrous for 4.4 million garment workers. Although the government mandated that furloughed workers be paid 65 percent of their salaries for the first three months, union representatives claimed that many workers did not get paid as promised.

Nazma Akhter, executive director of the Awaj Foundation, a Dhaka-based labor advocacy group, claimed that the pandemic highlighted negligence toward workers and provided an excuse for owners to deprive them.

“We know that everyone has been affected by the pandemic. Yet throughout the year the owners have benefited and the government has provided them with special loans. It is unacceptable how they still didn’t pay the workers,” Akhter told UCA News.

She regretted that the situation has put millions of workers at socioeconomic risk.

“Factories are still open and workers are at work with risks. If they are infected with Covid-19, there is no money for treatment. It very inhumane to reduce their salaries by using their weakness as a tool, or to pay one month's salary in another month,” Akhter added.

They are also human beings and understand the suffering of the workers, but they are also helpless

Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said the plight of workers including job losses and salary cuts was not intentional.

“Many orders have been canceled and many orders were being produced at the time when buyers stopped ordering. So, the owners are not in a good condition as well. They are also human beings and understand the suffering of the workers, but they are also helpless,” Azim told UCA News.

“Once the Covid-19 situation eases and orders and production are back on track, the industry will turn around and the workers' wages will increase.”

However, Father Albert T. Rozario, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, says Bangladeshi owners have done more business during the pandemic than many other apparel-producing countries.

“The factories were shut for a brief period and since then the employees continued to work with great risks. But employers have found this as an opportunity to deprive workers and violate their rights,” Father Rozario, parish priest of St. Joseph’s Church in Savar, another industrial hub near Dhaka, told UCA News.

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

The industry has been criticized for poor labor practices and lax safety standards, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation that has intensified during the pandemic.

More than 70,000 workers have been terminated during the pandemic, many without compensation, and thousands have left cities and towns and returned to their rural homes for survival, according to labor groups.

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