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Coronavirus worsened the reality for Bangladesh garment workers

Bangladeshi worker works at a garment factory in Gazipur outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on March 6, 2020.

Mehedi Hasan| NurPhoto | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — The coronavirus outbreak has left the garment sector in Bangladesh reeling — and thousands of factory workers bore the brunt of it as their livelihoods were abruptly taken from them.

The garment industry has long been the lifeline of the economy, but as the pandemic ravaged the world, billions of dollars worth of orders were canceled as global retailers shut their doors and brands held back orders.

Before the outbreak began, 22-year-old Mousumi, who declined to give her last name, started a new job at a garment factory in January after being unemployed since 2018. She made about 10,000 Bangladeshi taka ($118) each month until March, when factories around the country were ordered shut so as to slow the spread of the virus.

When factories reopened with limited capacity in April, Mousumi said she was put on standby for three months. Then, on Aug. 1, she said she was fired.

“They were only saying one thing: that they’re firing people because of coronavirus,” Mousumi said, according to CNBC’s translation of her remarks in Bengali.

Dulali, also 22, lost her job at ABA Fashions Limited in April where she used to make up to 11,000 taka a month with overtime pay. She has struggled to secure employment since then. Like Mousumi, she too was told the pandemic was to be blamed.

“They said because of coronavirus, there were no new orders coming and the factory owner was struggling to pay workers,” Dulali said, according to CNBC’s translation of her remarks in Bengali. She said her job search had been futile and that many others like her were also looking for work.

Dulali is living with her eight-year-old daughter. “We are living under a lot of hardship right now,” she told CNBC. She said they owe about 16,000 taka in rent. They are now scraping by with her earnings of around 500 taka each month as a cook at her landlord’s place — a fraction of the pay she used to earn.

CNBC spoke with six workers, including Mousumi and Dulali, by phone through the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation which works with various trade unions. Some of them are employed, while others say they have been looking for work since April or May.

All of them spoke about the financial hardship they face, including potential destitution, exacerbated by the pandemic’s crippling impact.

These are the most vulnerable workers, precarious in so many different ways and they’re paying the harshest price for this crisis.

Mark Anner

Professor at Penn State University

As the virus spread, many top retail brands canceled orders that were already in production. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) estimated the pandemic had an immediate impact on 1,150 factories that reported $3.18 billion worth of order cancellations. Between March and June this year, Bangladesh lost $4.9 billion worth of apparel compared to the same period in 2019, according to BGMEA.

BGMEA told CNBC that in the last three to four months its member factories have reported 71,000 workers have been laid off. A spokesperson said that most factories have retrenched workers who were employed for less than a year.

‘Vulnerable’ and ‘precarious’

Bangladeshi female workers work at a garments factory in Gazipur outskirts of Dhaka on February 17, 2018.

Mehedi Hasan | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Some 4.1 million workers — mostly women — work in the sector. But they often work long hours under punishing conditions, and earn very low wages.

“These are some of the most vulnerable workers in Bangladesh and in countries where there’s garment exports. Young workers, women workers, (are) often internal migrants. So they’re coming from the countryside to the city,” Mark Anner, a professor of labor and employment relations at Penn State University, told CNBC.

There are no fixed duty times. There is a lot of pressure at work, so we are forced to work.


Bangladeshi garment worker

Bilkis Bigum, 30, lost her job as a garment factory worker on April 4 and has not found work since. To get by, she worked at a sick neighbor’s house as a domestic helper and initially relied on others for help with food.

She’s now taking up temporary, hourly work that nets her around 200 taka to 300 taka — but it’s not enough to pay rent at the moment. Her brothers, who are working, sometimes help her out but they have their own families to look after too, Bigum said.

“Now I work here and there, at least that way I can earn some money,” she told CNBC in Bengali.

Many of them don’t have savings and live from paycheck to paycheck, Anner explained. So, when they lose their jobs, the impact is immediate.

“Sometimes their families back home depend on them, on internal remittances — sending money from the city back home to their families. These are the most vulnerable workers, precarious in so many different ways and they’re paying the harshest price for this crisis,” he added.

Anner published a report in March about the pandemic’s immediate impact on Bangladesh’s garments sector. He said the report found many brands were initially unwilling to pay suppliers for the production costs and raw materials that were already purchased. That forced many factories to shut down operations and furlough or fire workers.

Reuters reported that while exports have staged a recovery in recent months, factory owners expect orders to be slashed by two-thirds, and say retail buyers were demanding up to 15% price cuts.

Poor working conditions

Brands hold power

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