Bangladesh’s US$34 billion garment industry braced for impact as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic begun to sweep across Europe and the wider Asia region. So far, the pandemic led to the cancellation of export orders worth around US$3.18 billion from Bangladesh, creating a wave of anxiety in the RMG sector employing over four million workers and contributing to over 84 per cent to the country’s total exports.
The Government announced a set of stimulus packages worth $8.56 billion to fight the impact of COVID-19 in Bangladesh. Of the packages, $600 million was previously announced in late March for export-oriented industries. Affected garment factories availed funds from the $600 million deal in loans at 2% interest to pay their workers’ salaries for up to 3 months –paid into either a bank or mobile financial services account. The government decided that the export-oriented factories that announced layoff during the coronavirus outbreak would not be entitled to the stimulus package.
The rest of the packages, carrying different rates of interest, will benefit other industries, service sector, SME(s), etc. While this is a start in addressing the issue, serious concerns remain.
Business not as usual
COVID-19 has thrown up sudden, unforeseen challenges with the delay and cancellation of many buyers’ export orders, the risk of layoffs, fluctuating demands in the supply chain and the possibility of a long-term slowdown in the sector. Across the 249 BWB partner factories – who employ more than 560,000 workers – we witnessed unprecedented disruption, caused by:
1. Essential OSH measures to control the spread of COVID-19;
2. The constrained supply of raw materials;
3. The mass cancellation of current/future orders.
A ‘general holiday’ was force in Bangladesh from 26 March to 30 May to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some exceptions were made for factories that are producing personal protective equipment (PPE) or that had existing time-sensitive orders to fulfil, subject to compliance with health and safety requirements.
The government allowed reopening of offices and public transport services as of 31 May, ending 66 days of lockdown measures. Industries, private organisations and Government offices resumed regular operations in compliance with the health and safety guidelines. Learn more: Covid-19 timeline in Bangladesh
Garment factories have started to reopen from 26 April, initially with in limited scale. Factories are now operating in full scale, guided by the COVID-19 guidelines from government authorities and employers.
How BWB is responding to the crisis
Before the onset of the crisis, BWB started preparing short and long-term plans to support affiliated factories. Interventions particularly focused on COVID-19 response and the continuity of our factory services remotely to help factories cope with this entirely changed reality. Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) is a crucial part of our mandate. Our initial response focused on helping our partners adapt their efforts for COVID-19 by:
- Installing handwashing facilities and making sure the workers and employees wash their hands in regular interval.
- Awareness sessions for management, in-house doctors, welfare officers, participation committee (PC) members, Safety Committee members and workers themselves to make them aware of individual and collective responsibility to protect them and others.
- Cleaning and disinfecting of the workplace to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- Mass circulation of safety guidance (in local language) and engaging Safety Committees to develop action plans.
- Providing practical advice and legal guidance to respond to unexpected compliance issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Policy and institutional response
Better Work welcomes the Global Garment Industry Call to Action announced by the International Labour Organization, International Organisation of Employers and ITUC to tackle the economic disruption and threat to livelihoods caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about this initiative.
In Bangladesh, BWB is working closely with the ILO focusing on medium and long-term interventions such as:
- Unite GoB, employers and workers around the joint principles of a comprehensive COVID-19 response and action plan;
- Pledge to work together in line with social dialogue principles to mitigate the economic, social and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh and to safeguard employment (formal and informal) and the sustainability of all enterprises;
- Facilitate a gradual re-opening of all establishments and production facilities based on the responsible application of agreed ILO OSH standards and WHO guidelines;
- Pave the way for post-COVID-19 Collective Bargaining Agreements on harmonious industrial relations and wages, social security and general working conditions;
- Mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 on vulnerable populations, including through special recovery programmes;
- Tackle stigma and discrimination against those who have been infected or are suspected of having the coronavirus; in the workplace and their places of residence.
- Engaging global buyers and other constituents to develop measures to support workers and employers in the supply chain during the economic slowdown.
- Engaging international buyers, national and international constituents and other institutions to explore any opportunities there may be to support and protect suppliers and their workers during the period of economic slowdown.
Adapting our factory services for COVID-19
For the factories that remain(ed) open, BWB has adapted its factory services quickly to leverage its reach and technical expertise to address the urgent needs of affiliated factories.
- Better Work released a COVID-19 Management Guidance document in April to help factories reduce the risk of coronavirus and take practical measures to maintain necessary Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) conditions.
- Better Work Bangladesh’s in-person factory services are temporarily on hold, but all the services (except for Assessments) are being delivered virtually. The team will pilot a Virtual Compliance check service in September 2020 to replace the physical Assessments.
- In-person advisory visits have been replaced by tailored virtual advisory through video conferencing. Virtual visits include working with management and worker representatives, primarily focusing on practical guidance on COVID-19 response and addressing unforeseen compliance issues.
- Although physical Assessments are temporarily on hold, brand partners still have access to factories’ live improvement plan and progress reports on the Better Work portal.
- The team is organising virtual industry seminars and trainings to provide factories with technical input and guidance.
- New training courses have been added to the Training Package to raise awareness of COVID-19 among workers and managers and build their capacity for effective preparedness and response.
- BWB’ COVID-19 Resource Hub offers useful guidelines, awareness materials and free training courses.
“When a situation is as fluid as we are seeing with COVID-19, this sort of proactive approach and operational agility is vital to the success and sustainability of the RMG sector in Bangladesh,” said Anne-Laure Henry-Gréard, Programme Manager of Better Work Bangladesh (BWB).
“The industry stakeholders must use the momentum created by this pandemic to make progress toward comprehensive business continuity plans to become as prepared and proactive as possible in the face of a crisis like this and its long-term impact.”
Supporting the production of PPE
The ILO together with other UN agencies and BGMEA has created a task force with interested buyers to support the production of level-1 PPE equipment in country, both as a response to the immediate Covid-19 crisis and as a future investment in higher-level PPE production capacity in the long-term.