The harsh reality is that many factories are opting for downsizing their operations due to the current business situation, putting workers in a dilemma
Shirin Akter, an operator at an apparel factory in the capital's Mirpur area, lost her job in April last year as Western brands began to pull out orders from Bangladesh’s garment factories in the wake of the pandemic.
Four months later, she managed another job but at lower pay, so her struggle to make ends meet remained.
She used to get Tk 10,000 a month, but her new job pays her Tk 8,800.
“Had I switched jobs during normal times, I could have negotiated for better wages. But I had no option but to take the lower pay,” Akter added.
This is only a story among countless others who also lost their jobs during the pandemic, but got rehired elsewhere.
More than 2 lakh workers lost their jobs due to pandemic, according to trade union leaders.
But according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the number of workers who were laid off is about 70,000 workers.
And another 25,000 were laid off in 101 knitwear factories belonging to members of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA).
A small portion of workers managed to get jobs in other factories, but the lion's share of workers remain unemployed.
After getting the axe in May last year from his role as a line supervisor at a factory in Gazipur, Mirajul Islam turned down a couple of jobs at other factories as the pay was too low. He used to earn Tk 18,000 a month.
After four months, his savings and service benefits dried up.
“I had no choice then but to join at a factory at a much lower pay.”
The factory owners cut production capacity and reduced the number of lines.
“That is why there is a lower demand for higher positions. The situation is not in favour of workers,” Islam added.
The mid-level management of garment factories acknowledged the fact.
“It is a common practice -- if there is an oversupply of workers, factory owners take the opportunity and it is happening,” said a top official of an apparel factory based in Narayanganj seeking anonymity.
However, if the situation improves in export destinations, the work orders will increase and there will be a higher demand for workers, he added.
“Since there is enough supply of workers, the factory owners are taking the advantage by offering low wages,” said Nahidul Islam Noyon, secretary of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.
From the perspective of workers’ rights, this is a violation and unethical practice. “We hope the trade associations would take steps to stop such malpractice,” he added.
This is unfair to workers, said Sirajul Islam Rony, president of Bangladesh National Garments Workers Employees League.
Workers should be treated with their experience for the sake of the apparel industry’s sustainability and productivity.
“The factory owners are disregarding this. We talked to some of the owners, who said that they were suffering as the work orders were inadequate in comparison to capacity, while the cancellation during the pandemic left them in trouble,” Rony said.
As per BGMEA data, exporters faced order cancellations of $3.18 billion, while the factories are being run with 30 per cent less capacity.
However, factory owners and the BGMEA denied such allegations.
“First of all, we do not have any idea about the credibility of such allegations and the magnitude of such incidents,” said BGMEA President Rubana Huq.
Secondly, factories are to operate within the legal perimeter and in no circumstances should violate laws, rules and regulations of the country.
“We need to see if there are any instances of factories violating laws. While we have a fairly high attrition rate in the industry and workers switching jobs is a common phenomenon, factories are not required to check the last pay status by the former employers of the workers.”
However, any intentional step to take advantage of the situation is never welcomed.
“We are against exploitation of any form. But such an allegation needs a reality check on the overall economic scenario, which has been heavily disrupted by the pandemic.”
Garment, which brings home the lion’s share of export earnings, posted a 17 per cent drop in receipts to $27.5 billion in 2020, according to data from the Export Promotion Bureau.
The harsh reality is that many factories are opting for downsizing their operations due to the current business situation, putting workers in a dilemma.
This tactic lowers wage demand for those seeking new employment, but the industry should not take the blame for it.
“It absolutely depends on the workers to join a factory or not on certain remuneration packages -- they cannot be forced. Such situations, if prevailed, are absolutely unexpected but these have wider economic nuance,” Huq said.
So, generalising such incidents against a single industry will not be fair.
“Rather, we need to be vigilant about any intentional undue advantage of the situation by any party,” she added.
There is still a shortage of experienced workers, said Fazlee Shamim Ehsan, a director of BKMEA.
“We prefer to hire them with better pay.”
However, the workers are unable to show their service books to verify their experience. They are uninterested to carry this for unknown reasons, said Ehsan, also the proprietor of Fatullah Apparels.