Dhaka—28 April 2020
Seven years ago, a seven-storey factory building called Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. At least 1,134 garment workers died in the tragedy, with over 2,000 more maimed and injured.
It was the worst industrial tragedy to hit the garment industry and its impact reverberated around the world. But the supply chain reacted, investments worth billions of dollars led to improvements in working conditions across many of Bangladesh’s thousands of factories.
Today’s coronavirus pandemic poses a new, difficult test for Bangladesh.
The country fears it could lose everything it fought for over the years, or as the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Rubana Huq recently put it, “the ground beneath its feet.”
Coronavirus infections are on the rise in Bangladesh, reaching 162,417 cases and 2,052 deaths as of 7 July. The vast majority of its garment factories, which make more than 84 percent of the national exports, halted production on March 26, when the country went on a semi-lockdown to stem the spread of contagion.
Although the lockdown was officially in effect until 31 May, apparel factories were allowed to start reopening in phases and zones from 26 April on a limited scale from 26 April. This decision has been met with mixed reactions, with some concerned it will be difficult to ensure worker safety. Dialogue between employers, workers and the government is more essential than ever in this context.
“We [initially] kept producing only for a few critical exports that were still pending until April 3, while halting the vast majority of the production lines,” says Shawn Islam, managing director of Better Work-affiliated factory Sparrow Apparel Bangladesh.
Around 13,000 workers are employed at Sparrow Apparel’s three facilities in Dhaka. The workforce has received their March’s salary and been told to stick to the lockdown measures and remain in the capital, avoiding to further spread the infection in rural areas.
Throughout the lockdown, around 20 line supervisors from Islam’s factories have also been producing PPE material spanning surgical masks and clothing, for local police and security personnel employed in the factory, with the approval of the government.
According to BGMEA’s Huq, exports of ready-made goods from Bangladesh factories declined by 30.19 percent in March and 77.76 percent in April.
Over 1,150 factories reported cancellations of orders worth $3.18 billion, Huq said, directly impacting the lives of 2.28 million workers, and their families. Fifty-six percent of Bangladeshi garment workers are 18-to-25-year-old women.
“Since the coronavirus pandemic started in China, a disruption has been felt at all levels of the supply chain,” factory owner Islam says.
As soon as COVID-19 cases were recorded in Bangladesh in early March, Sparrow Apparel Bangladesh – like many other factories in the industry – moved to implement emergency health measures to stem the risk of contagion across the factory floor.
“Better Work helped us distribute information among our workforce concerning prevention measures workers should take to stem the risk of contagion,” Islam says. “Everyone had to wear a mask, doorknobs and handles were disinfected every 30 minutes, each employees’ body temperature was taken upon entering the premises, and hand sanitizer was made available to all.”
Special precautions had also been taken for the group’s pregnant employees. They were told to come to and leave from work fifteen minutes earlier or later to avoid other workers’ possible gatherings.
As infection started increasing, posters with WHO information dotted Islam’s factory walls, while the management kept reminding workers to wear their masks and wash their hands. Hundreds of faucets were also added on the factory floor along with hand-washing solutions. Workers’ shoes and hands were disinfected before entering the factory premises.
The entrepreneur stressed the importance of Better Work to help reach out to workers and raise their awareness amid the unprecedented health crisis. Still, Islam stressed that the programme’s help was now even more crucial in order to mediate discussions between local and international stakeholders for the survival of the supply chain in Bangladesh.
“Buyers, producers and unions should all sit together at one table trying to solve the ongoing sector crisis and without leaving the whole economic burden on the owners’ shoulders only,” Islam says. “We all want to work, while guaranteeing the safety of our workers.”
“Factories must resume operations under the strictest health prevention measures, which local and international agencies could help us maintain,” Islam says. “Work is crucial to avoid the emergence of social problems and protests caused by workers losing their jobs, which could further put their lives at risk by helping spread the virus further. This is a struggle Bangladesh must win.”