With thousands of people moving together, at a time when social distancing has been made mandatory, the risk of Covid-19 spreading further has never been higher
Thousands of garment workers since Friday morning had walked or used alternative modes of transport to reach Dhaka as their jobs were on the line, only to make their way back home just a day later.
The exit points of Dhaka were crowded on Sunday with people looking for public transports to head to their hometowns after owners, facing harsh criticisms, decided to keep factories closed till April 11— in line with the general holiday that’s been extended until April 14.
But going home also proved difficult for the workers with the ongoing nationwide shutdown in place to prevent further spread of Covid-19 that has killed nine people in the country so far.
Police also issued an instruction that no one will be allowed to enter or leave Dhaka from Sunday, adding to the woe of the workers.
Different organizations, including Transparency International Bangladesh, described the fiasco as a violation of security and health rights of the garment workers by owners.
With thousands of people moving together, at a time when social distancing has been made mandatory, the risk of the novel coronavirus spreading further has never been higher.
“We are just pawns in this risky game [of the factory owners] during this coronavirus pandemic,” said Mehedi Hassan, who reached Dhaka from a Netrokona village on Saturday midnight.
He had to spend over Tk1,000 to travel to Dhaka, taking rickshaws, van, auto-rickshaw, truck and motorcycle.
Thousands of workers like him had to ride on the back of trucks defying the risk of being infected.
When the Dhaka-bound wave of the workers drew flak, BGMEA President Rubana Huq late on Saturday said it was not the trade body’s responsibility to decide about the opening and closure of garment factories.
“I have never done injustice to the workers. You can’t just hold me liable,” she said.
Health Minister Zahid Maleque on Sunday also said that BGMEA and BKMEA did not consult with them.
On Sunday, most of the workers started for home after they were sent back from the factory gates, with the managements saying operations would resume on April 12.
Still, some factories in Gazipur were found operating on Sunday, over which many workers expressed anger. Some even were seen protesting inside the factories.
“Owners are staying in their homes, we can’t. We had to come to save our jobs,” said Adul Mozid, who came from Tangail and works at Aswad Composite Mills Limited. “That’s why I risked my life.”
Seeking anonymity, a worker of Sreepur’s Takwa Garment said: “Our owner is forcing us to work, when all other factories across the country are closed.
“We are scared, because they didn’t provide anything to keep ourselves safe at workplace. We are working because we don’t want to lose our jobs.”
“If we were told a day earlier, we wouldn’t have risked our lives and spent extra money on transport to get here,” said a worker of SS Knitwear Limited, who came from Sherpur.
Not everyone got paid
Meanwhile, two factories in Narayanganj had asked its workers to come and get their salaries, but did not follow through.
“The owner told us to come again on April 12,” said Mini Begum, one of the workers at Gang Properties.
Another worker, Sundori Khatun, said: “We received partial salary last month. We had come to withdraw the rest, but didn’t get it.”
Workers of another factory said their owner told them to come on April 7.
Mohammad Hatem, first vice president of BKMEA, said: “As the announcement [to extend factory closure] was made late at night [on Saturday], factory owners and workers were not aware of it. That’s why some factories were open. But most of them stopped their production.”
BGMEA not responsible?
BGMEA President Rubana on Sunday reiterated that it was not their responsibility to decide about the opening and closure of factories.
“I earlier asked the factories that have orders could run ensuring highest safety, which the Labour and Employment Ministry and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments echoed,” she said.
She also doubted whether all the people who came to Dhaka were garment workers. “Public transports were stopped on March 25. The factories were closed the next day. Most of the workers live near factories. So don’t assume all who returned are garment workers.”
Talking about the issue, Mohammad Mushtuq Husain, executive committee member at Bangladesh Medical Association (BMA), said: “They [factory owners] could have consulted with the Health Ministry. Now the entire nation is at risk.”
“They should’ve been more cautious,” he said.
Urging steps to ensure that no one could leave Dhaka now, he said: “It’s the responsibility of the factory owners to ensure home and institutional quarantine.”
It might be a bit difficult, but much more damage would happen if not done, according to Mushtuq, who was also the former chief scientific officer at the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR).
Additional reporting by Raihanul Islam Akand from Gazipur and Shamima Rita from Narayanganj