Bangladesh relies largely on its ready-made garment industry, serving fashion giants like C&A, H&M, Inditex (Zara), Tesco or Primark
It was just a week before the largest religious festival in Bangladesh and Shohel*, a 36year-old cutting master at Babylon Group’s Aboni Knitwear Ltd, was looking forward to receiving his arrears and festival bonus. Not only Shohel, hundreds of his colleagues had the same expectations.
Instead the security at the factory’s entrance, not only stopped him from entering the premises, but also snatched his phone set and tried to get hold of his identity card. What Shohel found out on that morning of May 11 was that he has been laid-off.
But Shohel thinks, it’s not only the crisis caused by Covid pandemic that is to blame. With over two decades of working in the sector, a journey from being a child labour to being the vice-president of combined workers’ union at the factory, his union work was also a factor.
No alternate income source
Shohel had already sent his family back to his village as he could not manage the expenses.
“The living costs went up due to the Covid outbreak. I thought about everything and found out that it was not possible for me to live in this costly Dhaka city with my two kids and wife based solely on my income,” Shohel explained.
“It was becoming difficult to bear their transport, accommodation and food cost. So, I sent them back home. Since last year, we were skipping a meal, and having meals twice a day.”
He also sold his grocery shop, where he invested all his savings, TK50,000, hoping his days would change. But he had opened it right before the pandemic and the new normal stopped his dreams from being realised.
Bangladesh, a poster child of development around the world, relies largely on its ready-made garment industry, which accounts for the majority of exports, serving fashion giants like C&A, H&M, Inditex (Zara), Tesco or Primark.
But after the world was hit by the pandemic, most of these giants have cancelled orders or are simply holding back due payments.
The acquired BGMEA data set shows vulnerability of the supply chain which shows UK brands cancelled approximately $1 billion worth of product made in Bangladesh. Tesco, is one of the UK brands that cancelled highest volume of orders as well as among the 18 brands that made public commitments to pay the full payment. However, Financial Times report says that clothing and general merchandise sales of Tesco have recovered strongly which plunged during the first lockdown
Multiple orders are cancelled or on hold, while Primark announced a wage fund, and UK brand like Debenhams have simply held off on paying for their orders that was shipped last year. Many other brands are asking for discounts up to 90%.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) President Faruque Hassan sought support in getting arrears for Bangladeshi suppliers by the British brands who have cancelled shipments and orders during the pandemic.
In June, he met with the British High Commission in London Saida Muna Tasneem to discuss this matter. However, BGMEA did not mentioned any brands.
Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) Vice-President Mohammad Hatem said around 500 ready-made garments have been closed since last year’s lockdown, among these 120 are registered with BKMEA and rest with the BGMEA.
“Buyers never take the responsibility and never take the responsibility of consequences of their actions. They are being unmasked due to the impact of Covid,” said Mohammad Hatem who is also Managing Director of M B Knit Fashion.
He added that $6,70,00 worth products are still in storage as buyers didn’t give any decision. However, only Primark paid for their products and took the shipments as promised but no other brands did the same. When asked about name of the brands, the BKMEA vice-president declined to comment.
The impact of such actions, despite the declarations by these brands of being responsible buyers, have turned the lives of RMG workers’ upside down.
On June 13, 600 workers from Lenny Fashion Ltd and Lenny Apparels Ltd blocked the highway at the Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ) in Savar after being laid off.
In a clash between workers and law enforcement at that area, Jasmin who joined as junior sewing operator of Goldtex Garments Ltd after losing the job from Lenny Fashion died when police tried to disperse the protestors.
Jahanara, president of Uttara area of Bangladesh Trade Union Kendra said: “There was a really sad situation during corona, workers were in trouble.”
“Both Versatile and Shanta group closed everything totally. They let go of the workers and closed their factories totally. They didn’t pay the dues. Maximum people didn’t have any work. Many lost their job, even in Uttara, around 1500 workers lost their Jobs.”
Wages unpaid and lost hope
Shohel had repeatedly tried to get a response from the management, but to no luck. His wages are still due.
Like Shohel, many workers have suffered. Thousands of workers from factories that laid off workers after the first lock-down, didn’t get their salaries.
Jannatun Begum,* a swing operator at Repeat Garments was terminated over phone on April 18 last year. Her line supervisor called her in the morning and informed her that she is among the terminated workers who has been working at the factory for less than 6 months. However, she received her salary of March. About 300-400 workers were terminated, according to her.
Jannatun earned Tk9,200 monthly, and her husband was a day-labour. Their 10-year-old son went to Madrasa (religious school).
Due to the lockdown, the family completely depended on Jannatun’s income. “At this moment, my husband does not have any work. I got terminated. Now, even if I look for a job as housemaid, I will not even get it because of the pandemic,” said Jannatun who does not have any savings.
The family was surviving hand to mouth, and only stable bread winner of the family also lost her source of income due to Covid.
To understand this impact on workers, a UC Berkeley-BRAC study interviewed 1,057 workers in Bangladesh in mid-2020 titled “The impact of Covid-19 on the lives of workers in the Bangladesh garment industry.”
The study found that the industry suffered from closure of markets, suspended shipments, delayed payments, and a liquidity crisis. Bangladeshi workers suffered what was in effect a 35% pay cut during the lockdown month.
The long term impact
In the UC Berkeley-BRAC study, 82% of the Bangladeshi workers interviewed said the income they had in April-May 2020 was less than the income in February 2020. Some 77% said it was difficult to feed everyone in their household and 69% of the workers ate less protein-intensive foods (meat, fish, eggs, and milk) from February to May.
Executive Director of the Institute for South Asia Studies, Dr Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, shared that the reduction in protein consumption was noted in one study.
Another study found that the average basic salary of TK7,200 per month, while higher than the prevailing minimum wage (TK5,300 that was set in 2016), is nonetheless low, as it is at “53% of the ‘living wage’ estimated by the Global Living Wage Coalition (TK13,620) and just 20% of the TK36,385 estimated by the Asia Floor Wage.”
When the research looked into how workers have coped during this period, it found 65% of women and 55% of men said they don’t save or use their savings to pay for food, and some 92% said they reduce other expenses in order to cope.
“Not being able to save puts workers at even greater risk for not being able to mitigate future economic or health crises that may occur. Workers may be cutting costs in other essential areas like health care, again putting them at great risk. The dire situation of workers is further aggravated by the fact that there are very limited safety nets and social protections in Bangladesh,” said Dr Sanchita Banerjee Saxena.
Unreasonable job cuts and unpaid overtime
Some allege that certain RMG factories are- firing workers and re-hiring them again with lower salaries, misbehaving with them so that they leave, making experienced workers leave the job so they don’t need to pay them extra basics.
Naimul Ahsan Jewel, member of the Advisory Council of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) shared that in his estimation around a million ready-made garment (RMG) workers lost their jobs due to the impact of COVID-19.
“When the Rana Plaza tragedy took place, there were 40 lakh workers, after the implementation of compliance, the number declined into 35 lakhs, and from different statistics, meetings and discussion, some shared that now 25 lakhs workers are now in the RMG sector. So, around a million workers lost their jobs. However, there are no concrete documentations of that.”
“During lockdown they wanted to fire workers but during that time, we didn’t let them. They wanted to fire almost 300 workers but we stopped them. Later, they are firing workers based on any excuse- being absent or late for a day, finding any fault with the work etc,” shared Shohel who was also threatened several times for his union work inside the factory, and later laid-off.
Relating to what Shohel claimed, another worker of the Babylon Group, Md Robin*, former swing operator, said he lost his job without much of an explanation due to a needle related incident.
He thinks it was a trivial issue and might be connected to company being unable to pay him high salary and bonus. He has many family members. None of them contributes to the care of his parents. His wife is also without job due to some illness. Now, he has serious financial difficulties ahead and does not know where he will earn Tk7,000-8,000 a month just to survive.
Explaining the job-cuts and rehiring scheme, Shohel said: “They wanted to fire some workers. They said that they are firing from the training centre because of poor performance. But in reality, the training centre is not the main issue.”
“Those who have worked 2/3 months or 6 months/1 years here are being sacked. The management is saying that we don’t need you anymore, we have excess workers. But then, they are rehiring them at a lower salary. Those who were paid Tk9,000 are now paid Tk8,000.”
Workers were not even getting paid overtime. They are being underpaid with Covid as an excuse but the work order or profit does not seem to have lessened, said Shohel. “I was working even on general holidays and few hours overtime everyday but my pay-slip was not showing it.”
“They said these unpaid duties would be adjusted with the Eid holiday,” he added.
On the other hand, some of the RMG factories were not getting any new orders, so workers who depended on the overtime were having a hard time managing household cost.
“Chaity group is the most famous one here, this factory used to be full of work, always. But because of the Covid pandemic, there is no more work here. They are paying salary properly. But it is difficult to survive without overtime. It has been observed that, salary of a worker is Tk8,000 and the rent he/she pays is Tk4,000. Can he maintain his family within Tk4,000? No, he can’t,” explained Amena* Begum.
Human rights violation?
“The government has also taken some initiatives to solve the issues in the garments sector through consultation with different stakeholders,butworkers’rightswere not protectedas properly as they deserved,” said Nazma Akter,Executive Director of Awaj Foundation.
Under human rights law, the government bears the obligation to protect human rights, and as such the primary responsibility for the protection of workers’ rights rests with the Bangladesh government, emphasised Dr Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, and said: “The government imposed lockdown like many other countries, during which the statutory pay for furloughed workers was reduced by nearly a third, making workers already living close to poverty even more vulnerable.”
“It did not intervene in the negotiations between international brands and suppliers. With the closure of offices and banks, the government did well in requiring payments to be made through electronic means. The government also issued a stimulus package to help with the wage payments, but only the larger, registered factories were able to avail this benefit which was ultimately in the form of a loan,” she said.
Khaleda*, in her early twenties, is been working under pressure to meet the hourly targets which increased after ready-made garment factories started its operation during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.
But she has been facing a tirade of verbal abuse for apparently being slow. When she protested it,the manager told her that if she does not like it, the door is open, and she can leave.
She was once threatened by her supervisor that he will shove the air up her anal cavity if she cleans herself with the blowing machine.
“They kept hurling insults at me. They even called my parents’ names and I told them I will not put up with it. If you have a problem with me, curse me but not my parents. When I was taken to the manager he said the gate is open,” said the worker of Aboni Knitwear ltd from the Babylon Group.
Soheli*, swing operator, executive member of Shommilito Sromik Union (combined workers’ union) said that the hard work she does gets her sick sometime.
“But they keep hurling abuses at me even when I ask for water break. Most of them are sexual in nature and others involve my parents. So I continue working without drinking water so that I do not have to use the toilet,” she said.
“They do not carethat there is a worker’s union or that I am a representative. The way they speak to us and behave with us, I just wonder what they do with general workers.”
Another union leader and swing operator Jahanara, in her mid-thirties has taken leave from work due to urine infection. In her factory, Chaity Garments she does not have much work pressure as the factory does not have much order to deliver. So, she was able to get sick leave.
However, her health complications arose from neglecting her basis needs like drinking water. Ever since she moved to the capital at the age of twelve looking for work, she had ignored these basic fundamental human needs of drinking water and avoided urination when necessary to save herself from verbal abuse.
Mukta Bhokto, medical assistant in a garment factory have shared that workers seriously lack nutritious food, and work pressure forced them to become a human machine. “In summer, workers suffer from urine infection mostly. They prioritise work before their basic human fundamental needs like – eating a proper nutritious food which they cannot afford, drinking water or avoid urination so that they can meet the target,” said Mukta.
If urine infection remained untreated for long-time may lead to permanent kidney damage, said the, joint inspector general of Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) Dr Md Mustafizur Rahman.
The virus dramatically hits the poorest of the poor. Not only in terms of health, but mainly economically during the pandemic. Workers shared the incidents of verbal abuse that they faced at work. It didn’t matter whether the worker was a union leader or not. They were abused for trivial matters like taking rightful leave, malfunctioning machine etc.
They also added how they were deprived of overtime using various techniques. Despite the condition of their working tools or the difficulty of their work, the management tried to squeeze their hours’ worth from the workers.
At the same time, impact on their health was also ignored by the authority as Covid-19 remained the priority whole time. In fact, increased harassment, is still just considered “ok” as it’s verbal, and its impact has been overlooked by authority at every level, from factory management to government.
This article was funded by the National Geographic Society
‘*’ Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identities
Dil Afrose Jahan is a journalist based in Bangladesh where she specialises in covering human rights, migration, crisis and women's and children's issues
Tansy Hoskins is a journalist covering the garment industry and the author of 'Foot Work – What Your Shoes Are Doing toThe World' and'Stitched Up – The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion'
Juan Mayorga is a Mexican journalist specialising in environmental reporting. His focus is environmental issues where they intersect with social and economic concerns
Nidia Bautista is a journalist and PhD student in Chicana/o and Central American Studies at UCLA. Nidia works as a journalist in Latin America and the US covering immigration, human rights issues and gender violence