COVID 19 impact: LIFE vs LIVELIHOOD? The dilemma facing Bangladeshi RMG workers in re-opened factories

Shefaly Akter*, a sewing operator working for Natural Denims Ltd, a Readymade Garment (RMG) factory in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, thought her life had finally stabilized after a decade.

Shefaly Akter*, a sewing operator working for Natural Denims Ltd, a Readymade Garment (RMG) factory in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, thought her life had finally stabilized after a decade. A stable job with a steady income with which she could afford a place in the city and sustain herself.

But the stability she achieved in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, propped up by revenue from the RMG sector, was lost overnight after the government was forced to shut-down everything except for essential services due to the COVID 19 pandemic.

After a month, when a limited number of RMG factories were allowed to re-open from April 26, Shefaly faced the greatest dilemma of her life. Whether to re-join work and face the risk of being infected with the virus that had brought the world to a screeching halt, or starve to death.

“It is not like we have a choice. On one hand, I know that I can contract the virus the moment I step out of the house. On the other, there is no way I can sustain myself on just the basic salary of Tk 5,000 (54 Euro). The basic just about covers for the room I live in, and if I do not work and get the earnings from working the shifts, there is no food on the table,” Shefaly said explaining the dilemma.

According to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), a total of 1926 factories have re-opened after the lockdown after ensuring health safety measures like ensuring workplace distancing, sanitization when entering the facilities. 

“We are working in two shifts so that we can maintain enough distance amongst us,” said Shilpy expressing her satisfaction at the measures taken at her workplace. “But what will happen if I get the virus on the way to and from the factory, or accidentally by someone who is asymptomatic?”

BGMEA, following the emergency guidelines by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), published a general directive on April 24 about reopening the factories. Following the guidelines, two separate health guidelines were issued for workers and factory owners. In the very first week, around 700 factories reopened with limited capacity. 

Md Zahangir Alam, Managing Director of Z A Apparels Ltd, reopened four out of seven of his factories following the health safety guidelines. However, in some parts, it was not possible to maintain the suggested two-meter distance, but he made sure the minimum one-meter distance between the workstations were being met.

“There are many reasons for opening. We have to prepare workers' accounts for their April salary. For that, a few employees were supposed to come back anyways,” Zahangir said. “We also have some emergency shipments and have to produce some samples and get them approved by the buyers to ensure future orders. So, we have reopened different sections of production lines with limited resources.”

BRAC’s Director of Advocacy for Social Change, Technology, and Partnership Strengthening Unit, K.A.M. Morshed, said both life and livelihood need to be protected at the same time. “Life vs. livelihood is a false binary. If there is no livelihood, people will come out ignoring all restrictions and thereby threatening life. Hence, no one can attain one at the cost of others,” said Morshed.  He also suggested preparing for the future, “It is not only the RMG factories, after Eid, but all other backward and forward linkage industries will also be opened. Hence, it is critical to prepare a general health guideline for industrial settings so that all the industries that are operating comply with the guideline. A worker-owner-government monitoring regime should be in place. The BRANDs responsibilities/accountability in case of any serious COVID19 cases among garments workers should be negotiated and fixed.”

Cancellation of orders has affected RMG workers said Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) Executive Director and labor activist Kalpona Akter: “There is no social protection and unemployment insurance for workers. The RMG workers have been impacted financially as well as health-wise. Many of the workers got infected and they are facing difficulties for getting the treatment.” She also believes that brands signed Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives (MSI) to better their images, but they do not go far enough. “In the post-pandemic world, there should be a mandate for the brand, retailers as well as manufacturers that need to be enforced,” she strongly suggested. 

The Ready-made Garments (RMG) industry of Bangladesh drives the country’s economy. Worryingly, in April this year, the country experienced an export downfall of 85% compared to the same month of last year in the RMG sector. Only 366.5 million dollars in comparison to the 2.42 billion dollars in 2019’s April.

Experts warn that the worst is not here yet.  “Shops are still closed in many countries and as shopping centers open gradually, as governments in Europe and USA are indicating, it will take time for things to normalize,” pointed out Dr. Khondaker Golam Moazzem, the director for research of Bangladeshi think tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).  “The consumers for the RMG sector in developed countries are also losing jobs and facing unemployment. Those who are getting jobs are getting lower salaries than before, and therefore the share of the earning they spent on non-essential items will be lower and maybe even non-existent.” Moazzem continued to suggest that instead of trying to only deal with the challenges locally, seeking cooperation with global stakeholders might be the key since the sector is part of a global value chain. “We should move strongly for adopting Responsible Business Practice (RBP), so that stakeholders contribute alongside our local entrepreneurs to prop up the industry.”

Germany, one of the major export destinations of Bangladesh, has canceled or hold more than 500 orders from Bangladesh due to the COVID 19 impact, according to a data-based on BGMEA. Renowned fashion brands around the world like C&A, Primark, M&S, H&M, Kiabi, Zara, Inditex, Bestseller, and Tesco which have reportedly canceled or postponed the most orders from suppliers in Bangladesh.

Shahidullah Azim, Former Vice-President of BGMEA & Managing Director of Classic Group mentioning the government declared a stimulus package of BDT 5,000 crore (the equivalent of EUR 530 million) for export-oriented industries to mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus, is a ‘temporary solution.’ He said, “It’s everyone’s responsibility and no order should be canceled. For the time being, we all are suffering but to make the business sustainable all the parties must come forward. The worst part is that some brands have applied for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy law must be reform as when any company goes for bankruptcy the L/C opening banks surrender to pay the bill and ignore their responsibility.”

The exchanges in the RMG sector in Bangladesh have always been characterized by a culture of finger-pointing between different stakeholders, where everyone highlights the responsibility of the other. Currently, this behavior is continuing. What is still missing is a real discussion on what makes the sector more sustainable in a new post-pandemic world of shopping and producing textiles.  If we do not live up to searching for and contributing to this new RMG future, the lives and livelihood of workers are at high risk to be overlooked again and again. This is a wake-up call for the industry, we have to use it to shape a better future for work in the RMG sector.

Author/Dil Afrose Jahan

Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Bangladesh Office

Dhaka, Bangladesh

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