Workers at the Sparrow factory in Bangladesh

Bangladesh apparel factories have begun to reopen amid a swirl of uncertainties ranging from working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic to whether global brands will pay for orders and an impending deadline regarding the implementation of building and fire safety measures.

More than four million people, many of them women, work in the $34 billion apparel export sector in Bangladesh — the second-largest garment exporter in the world after China.

An estimated 1,000 of the nation’s 3,500 factories are now open, with new rules in place while the rest of the country, including transport systems, remain in lockdown, which started on March 26 and has been extended to May 16.

The damage to the garment industry in that time frame has been massive: An estimated $3.18 billion, according to Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

“The COVID-19 or coronavirus has forced us to witness a war between the two — lives versus livelihood. After almost being closed for one month associated with millions of dollars’ worth of export loss and overdue payments, the garment sector of Bangladesh has started reopening following a cautious step and a factory opening guideline prepared by BGMEA,” Huq told WWD.

“The situation is horrific,” he continued. “More than 1,150 factories have lost substantial export orders on close to a billion pieces of clothing. Our factories are in serious trouble since we need to settle the payments of the raw material suppliers and most importantly need to pay salaries to our workers and employees, and we only depend on payments from buyers upon shipping.”

As the factories have opened over the last week, they have been both cautious and beset by confusion.

There is a compendium of new guidelines for factory owners to implement from the World Health Organization; International Labor Organization; BGMEA, and global retailers and brands. Meanwhile, raw materials are often inaccessible, with a pileup of containers at the port in Chittagong, but unreachable in the lockdown.

While some global brands and retailers like H&M and Primark have pledged to make payments for orders already made, there are many others in gray areas of cancellations or delayed payments. The situation is particularly bleak for the small and medium-sized companies that supply smaller retailers.

Workers, many of whom are migrants coming to Dhaka and its suburbs, have been trying to cope with the situation, balancing the fear of losing their jobs with the dread of contracting the virus, as well as what many of them describe as confusing communication with their employers.

Mafizul Islam, a 29-year-old worker at Islam Garments, left his factory in the Ashulia suburb of Dhaka to return to his village in Jamalpur district about 111 miles away to be with his daughter, his brother and two sisters on March 26, when Bangladesh first announced a 10-day lockdown.

“I got word that the factory would open on April 4, so I began my journey back — the first 30 kilometers by auto van, then a second vehicle, and finally a lift on a motorcycle since public transport wasn’t working.

“I paid more than three times the 200 taka [$2.35] transport costs to get to my factory. I was afraid that I might lose my job and wanted to be in Ashulia no later than April 3,” he said.

Although hundreds of workers returned for the planned April 4 opening — many, like Mafizul Islam, walking hundreds of miles — they instead found locked factory gates, high rents and confined spaces under lockdown.

Factory opening dates were unclear as the government extended the lockdown to April 9, then to April 15, and finally a limited number of factories opened their gates on April 26, with instructions to allow only 30 percent of workers inside, and only those already living in the vicinity. Migrant labor was not to be called back.

But the rush of workers returning from the countryside has continued. Last week, for example, ferry terminals were loaded with returning workers and ferries crossing the Padma River have been clearly missing the target of social distancing.

“The supervisors call and inform workers the factories are opening,” said a trade union leader, who requested anonymity. “Workers assume they must return or lose their jobs, and the economic pressure is higher than the fears of community transmission. Nothing is given to them in writing.”

Razequzzaman Ratan, general secretary of the Socialist Labour Front, described the situation simply: “Our labor force is cheap and the workers are vulnerable because of economic hardship, and to utilize this poverty to maximize profits is very dangerous.”

“Bangladesh is a land of vast population [160 million] and density,” he said. “The density of the population is seven times higher than China, and four times more than India per square kilometer at an average of 1,129 people per square kilometer. But in the industrial zones, like Ashulia, it is close to 50,000 people per square kilometer.

“Many of the workers who come from other cities share seven people to a room if they are single. If they are married, three families share a common kitchen and four families a common toilet. But how to maintain safety and health in this situation is a great concern as workers come back from their villages with the fear of losing their jobs,” he added.

Workers have also been breaking down protocols of social distancing by protesting outside factories, like Ananta Casual Wear Ltd. and Auko Tex Ltd. in Gazipur. The government has mandated payment of 60 percent of wages for April, while workers demanded full payment.

Other demonstrations had workers demanding to be let into the premises, unaware that only 30 percent of the staff was being allowed in.

The ILO has been active in helping the factory owners and labor plan their way forward.

“This is a very unprecedented type of situation,” Tuomo Poutiainen, the ILO’s country director for Bangladesh, told WWD. “As some industries begin to slowly resume operations, the ILO has developed a three-pronged strategy to ensure a safer return to work in the Bangladesh context. The first step is the adoption of several safety and health measures at work based on dialogue between employers and workers, and a shared understanding of coronavirus risks.”

To safeguard workers, the ILO has developed specific OSH guidelines, together with the department of inspection for factories and establishments.

“We are promoting the idea of work sharing — if there were 1,000 people, then maybe those 1,000 people can rotate. But try to maximize employment impact. These are measures in the medium term we would like to see,” he said.

While the last few years have had a stronger focus on the formation of trade unions to help maintain worker safety, the factory owners appear to have an upper hand once more.

“This kind of massive suspension of work and opening of factories also puts trade unions under duress because they are not able to function as efficiently,” said Poutiainen. “But we hope when they return to work the trade unions will be able to resume and play a very important role. It is a difficult time for trade unions; a difficult time for general rights for workers. But I think it is important that they continue to play a role in the future.”

Meanwhile, global unions continue to keep a close eye on the situation.

“The reality is that it is almost impossible to keep people safe, because even in factories if they have masks and they have disinfectants available it is almost impossible for people on their way to work and coming back to be safe, because it is incredibly crowded,” said Alke Boessiger, deputy general secretary of UNI Global Union.

“It is a big concern that the virus is going to just continue to spread because there is no real enforcement of rules, no real inspection, just building safety but no resources to inspect all these measures. We think it is a massive health risk, but at the same time, of course, the big concern that we have is for livelihood,” she said.

BGMEA has taken international advice into account while setting up detailed guidelines before factory openings.

“I was very involved with the factory openings — a committee was formed to make detailed proposals and guidelines. We looked at what was happening in other countries, as well as our own realities before these were published by BGMEA,” said Shawn Islam, managing director and owner of the Sparrow Group, which has sales of about $350 million with factories in Bangladesh, India and Jordan. His factory in Gazipur opened last week, with newly engineered spaces, ensuring that workers sanitize before entering, marking out socially distanced spots for workers to stand, staggering times for reporting to work, and changed workstations.

Bangladesh factory

Women in PPE at an apparel factory in Bangladesh.  Courtesy

He explained that although factory owners were concerned about the risks, the urgency of completing back orders, and the sampling for the next season, has begun in earnest. As factories in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Jordan started functioning, those in Bangladesh were under pressure to shape up, or lose business further.

“The factory closure happened in our busiest season, and all the buyers changed the terms of payments, resulting in huge cash flow issues. We know that COVID-19 is not going to go away any time soon and need to make the adjustments to make things work,” he said.

But the concerns about safety extend beyond factory gates.

Shamima Akter, who works at Sparrow as an inspector at the factory location in Gazipur, said she lives 2 kilometers away from the factory. She takes an auto rickshaw to work, paying double the normal fare. Meanwhile, hundreds of workers walk to work, and back, as transport facilities are still not functioning. Social distancing is all but forgotten.

“It is very hard to control people,” said Islam. “When factories shut down they all went to their villages. Although we have been telling them to stay at home, they have been coming back. Many of them are very young, more than 50 percent are in their 20s and feel they are invincible. I am worried about a spike in cases, but all we can do is our very best to put in every safety measure.”

The Bangladesh government has been working to ensure the survival of the industry, which accounts for more than 80 percent of its export earnings, issuing an assistance package of 50 billion taka, or $580 million, to help factory owners pay wages. They also mandated that factories begin to make payments by phone banking instead of the cash payments that workers usually collect at the factory.

“It should be cleared up that this assistance is not a grant, rather a loan to the factory owners at 2 percent interest rate with two years’ payback terms. Factories in a wobbly situation are eligible to apply for this fund to pay salaries for their workers and employees,” said BGMEA’s Huq.

The earlier cancellations of orders and delays in payment have not disappeared, but many global retailers are standing by, spurred on by the global call to action to support workers and suppliers spearheaded by ILO, the International Organization of Employers, the International Trade Union Confederation, IndustriALL Global Union and other organizations.

H&M, for example, said it would “stand by its commitments to garment manufacturing suppliers in all countries by taking delivery of already produced garments as well as goods in production, if delivered within a reasonable timeframe.”

“However, the current lockdown in some production countries, imposed by governments, has created an unprecedented situation. To help suppliers in this difficult situation and minimize the negative impacts of lockdowns, we have taken the decision not to use our contractual right to immediately cancel delayed orders, but instead allow an extra month delay, or, if the products are not seasonal, even more time. If, as a last resort, the supplier cannot deliver our orders, we will have an open dialogue with each affected supplier to see if we can come up with a solution, which could, for example, be to place additional orders that can be delivered at a later stage,” said Emelie Ericson, press officer at H&M Group.

On top of the global health and economic crises, Bangladesh factories are facing pressure from the impending deadline to implement building and fire safety measures related to the collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013.

The Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which involved more than 200 European retailers and brands and trade unions, extended its initial five-year agreement for three years. Members of the Accord source from more than 1,700 factories in Bangladesh. But instead of the three years, a Bangladesh court order gave the Accord staff a deadline of 281 days to leave the country, which is June 1.

A lot of this time has passed in extensive negotiations between the factories and the Accord for the transition to a RMG Sustainability Council.

“We are still under process of setting up the RSC, which is set to takeover the work of the Accord,” said Joris Oldenziel, deputy director of the Bangladesh Accord Foundation. “The RSC is still not fully incorporated — the whole coronavirus crisis put a spanner in the works in terms of the schedule and the timetable that we had anticipated for setting up RSC. But whether or not it can be set up on June 1, it is anticipated that it will be.”

Meanwhile, the Accord has suspended inspections, he said, and also the work in the Dhaka office as the staff work from home.

“We also made efforts to make an inventory on status of closures, whether factories were closed, and when they were expected to open. It has been quite unclear, especially as the lockdown has been extended multiple times. As factories open, we are asking a lot of the signature brands to check on their factories and the preventative measures they have taken,” Oldenziel said.

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