Millions of garment workers in Bangladesh forced to return to factories 

The announcement by the Bangladesh authorities allowing garment export factories to resume work has resulted in tens of thousands of workers returning to major cities in overcrowded trains and buses, ignoring health guidelines

August 10, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Bangladesh garment workers
Large number of garment workers returning to factories in Bangladesh. (Photo: Md Manik/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock)

Despite a strict lockdown, at least four million garment workers in Bangladesh were ordered to resume work from Sunday, August 1. The announcement made two day earlier led to thousands of workers rushing back to major production centers in overcrowded trains and buses due to the threat of job loss, increasing the risk of COVID-19 spread. A large number of workers complained of paying more than the normal rates for transportation, which was resumed by the government only on July 31. 

On July 30, the Sheikh Hasina-led government issued a notice allowing garment export factories to resume operations. Following this, garment workers were seen returning to major cities from their villages in overcrowded trucks, ferries and other means of transportation. Several others traveled on foot. At least 90% of garment workers were reportedly able to report for work.

According to labor leaders, the decision to reopen factories amid restrictions may lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases as thousands of workers were forced to return ignoring safety guidelines. 

The authorities had earlier declared that no factory, office, shop or transport would remain open between July 23 to August 5. The sudden announcement created panic among garment workers, most of whom had traveled to their villages and small towns for Eid holidays and the subsequent lockdown.

According to reports, the decision to open at least 4,500 garment factories was taken following pressure from influential factory owners who warned of “catastrophic consequences” if orders for foreign brands were not completed on time.

“The announcement to reopen factories amid the restrictions had created unspeakable sufferings and serious risks of contracting the Covid infection for the workers,” Nazma Akter, president of Sammilita Garment Shramik Federation, told local media.

According to official numbers, which often grossly underestimate the reality due to lack of testing infrstructure, Bangladesh is registering around 12 thousand new cases daily. The health minister announced this week that the lockdown and restrictions on non-essential business and travel will be lifted on August 11.

Several labor activists, including senior vice-president of IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, Salauddin Shapon, expressed disappointment with the way large numbers of workers were forced to return to work in unsafe travel conditions. Apoorva Kaiwar, IndustriALL South Asia regional secretary, stressed that this hasty decision was not acceptable. “Garment workers are forced to take such risks in order to meet business targets. Opening factories during the lockdown and asking workers to report for work when all transport was suspended is inhumane,” she said.