Asia - Pacific

Poverty drives Bangladeshi garment workers to toil amid strict lockdowns

Workers must be paid risk incentives, says labor leader, while vice president of association says priority should be safety

Md. Kamruzzaman   | 06.07.2021
Poverty drives Bangladeshi garment workers to toil amid strict lockdowns

DHAKA, Bangladesh

Amid Bangladesh’s strictest nationwide lockdown, millions of workers in the country’s main exporting readymade garment (RMG) industry have been working without any risk incentives due to poverty, apparently resigned to their fate.

Nearly 4 million people, mostly destitute women from remote areas, are working in the sector, which accounts for more than 80% of the country’s total exports.

“My husband has left me with my 4-year-old daughter and is engaged with another woman. My daughter and I are now fully dependent on my meager income,” Bulbuli Akhter, 22, a garment worker in the capital Dhaka, told Anadolu Agency.

Tired after working all day at the factory, Akhter returned home around 8 p.m. local time.

“I am not worried about the coronavirus. I am worried for my child, who I left with my brother’s wife in my rural home,” she said in a sullen tone.

Hailing from a remote area of the country's northern district of Bagura, Akhter has been working in Dhaka for more than three years without her child.

“My baby now knows my brother’s wife better than me,” she added.

With a monthly pay of just 8,500 Bangladeshi takas ($100), she spends 3,500 takas ($41) on food and rent.

“I just sleep on the floor and share food with another needy family in a single room.

“I usually send 3,000 takas ($35) for my child. At the end of the month, I am left with no money. ... I have no savings,” she said, adding that fortunately, her factory is still running despite the lockdown.

Stories of tens of thousands of female garment workers across the country are nearly the same.

Most of them work the whole day in the factory and share a residence with others without any privacy or protection.

Jesmine Begum, 17, also works at a garment factory in Dhaka, and shares a single room with a couple.

Hailing from the country's mid-southern district of Shariatpur, Begum also gets the same amount of monthly pay and sends the greater part of her income to her poverty-stricken parents in the rural area.

“The coronavirus or lockdown is nothing important to me. My regular income is more important for my parents,” she told Anadolu Agency.

Demand for risk incentives

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, labor rights leader Mushrefa Mishu said that while the government has imposed coronavirus regulations for all there are separate regulations for garment workers.

“We never support it. All garment workers must be inoculated immediately, and they should pay extra as a risk incentive for their duty during the lockdown,” Mishu added.

Referring to the one-sided benefit of the owners through the life-risking job of the workers, she said: “Our demand is that all RMG factories should be closed for one month with pay for the workers.”

“All lives are equally important, and garment workers are nothing different. They should not be treated as an income tool.”

She claimed that due to their fear of losing their job, garment workers continue their jobs with the virus risk.

“The government is mainly serving the interests of the owners, not the laborers,” she said.​​​​​​​



Assurance of safety

Fazlee Shamim Ehsan, the vice president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, however, told Anadolu Agency that their first priority is the safety of workers.

“We are trying our best to abide by the pandemic health guidelines with the mandatory use of masks as the main shield against the virus and hand sanitizer,” he said.

“We are encouraging all factories to sanitize every worker at the gate before they enter the factories and maintaining social distance.”

He claimed that according to the current provisions, in case of the death of any garment worker from any disease, including COVID-19, factory owners have to pay 300,000 takas (nearly $3,550).

“We have also spoken with the government on the inoculation of garment workers. We hope that within the next one or two months, we will be able to start massive inoculation of garment workers,” Ehsan said, adding that a good number of garment workers have already been vaccinated.

“In case of any infections, we have dedicated labs and hospital facilities for our workers,” he noted.



Lockdown extended for 1 week

The Cabinet Division of Bangladesh on Monday extended the ongoing lockdown for seven more days, to July 14, under the recommendation of the National Technical Advisory Committee on COVID-19 in the wake of the deteriorating pandemic situation.​​​​​​​

The South Asian country of over 166 million people began weeklong nationwide lockdowns on July 1 in the wake of an alarming spike in virus cases with the detection of the deadly Delta Variant.

Since the first COVID-19 case and death in Bangladesh in March 2020, the country has enforced a nationwide lockdown several times.

But in view of the deadliest course of the virus in neighboring India as well as some other parts of the world, Bangladeshi authorities have repeatedly warned residents of facing dire consequences if they violate the lockdown restrictions.

Several thousand people across the country have already been arrested and fined for venturing out of their homes for non-urgent reasons.

Members of the army, the Border Guard, Rapid Action Battalion, and mobile courts with executive magistrates have been deployed across Bangladesh.

The whole country, including Dhaka, has taken on a deserted look due to the lack of people on the streets.

As a result of the tough restrictions, the economic activities of tens of thousands of people have come to a standstill while millions of low-income people, including day laborers who are mostly dependent on a daily income, have been suffering a lot.

The government, however, claims the move is the only way to stem the spread of the pandemic.

The country on Sunday recorded its highest single-day death toll from the disease -- 153 -- pushing the country’s tally over the 15,000 mark. The total number of cases also rose to nearly 945,000.

Bangladesh has so far inoculated more than 10 million people.

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