Thousands of readymade garment workers in Gazipur have been passing days in uncertainty as over four dozen factories remain closed for more than two months in the coronavirus fallout.
Left without work, many of them are struggling to buy food, pay house rent and meet other needs of their families.
Besides, several thousand workers have been sacked in the face of financial losses being incurred by the factories due to the pandemic.
According to data from the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), 862 export-oriented garment factories were in operation in Gazipur before the pandemic. About 70 percent of the workforce was women.
As of Friday, 52 of the units remained out of operation, the data shows.
Md Yousuf Ali, deputy inspector general of DIFE in Gazipur, said those 52 units employed 40,000 to 52,000 workers before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.
He also said some 810 factories, with an estimated 7,51,691 workers, were in operation as of Friday.
Gazipur is one of three key industrial zones for the country’s export-oriented garment sector, apart from Narayanganj and Dhaka.
After the first three coronavirus positive cases were reported on March 8, the government enforced a countrywide shutdown, closing all public and private offices, except for some essential services, on March 26. The move was aimed at containing the spread of the deadly virus.
On April 26, the government allowed the RMG units to resume operation on a “limited scale”, but said they must maintain health guidelines.
Although most of the factories in Gazipur have resumed operations, many did not reopen after international buyers cancelled work orders abruptly, said factory insiders.
Earlier on March 25, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a bailout package worth Tk 5,000 crore for the export-oriented industries to fight the adverse impact of the coronavirus on the country’s economy.
With the money, the industries were asked to provide the salaries and wages of employees and workers.
Still, many have to take the brunt of the situation.
Take Mithila Parveen for an example.
A quality inspector at an RMG unit in Gazipur’s Manipur area, Mithila said her factory has been out of operation for more than two months. The last time she was paid was on April 14 — her salaries for March.
She was then told not come to work ever again.
Mithila lives in her rented home in the same area with her husband Aslam Hossain, also a garment worker, and their one-and-a-half-years-old son.
Luckily, Aslam’s office was still paying him, but he was struggling to run his family with his meagre income. He also needs to send money to his parents back in their village home in Munshiganj.
“These days, all of us, including my in-laws, are having little to no food. We are starving,” Mithila told this daily.
Abdul Latif, another RMG worker, said he was in a similar situation and that he could hardly send money to his elderly parents in Netrakona’s Kendua.
Latif said after losing his job, he thought of going back to his village for good, but he could not even arrange the bus fare for all his family members.
“We haven’t paid our house rent for months. On several occasions, the landlord has asked us to leave,” he said.
On May 10, the labour ministry, following a meeting with garment factory owners and labour leaders, issued a notice, asking the owners to pay workers, who worked in April, their full salaries and wages.
It said those who did not have any work must be paid 65 percent of their salaries for the month.
The ministry also asked the owners not to dismiss any worker or go for any lay-offs ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr.
But trade union leaders and workers’ rights activists said many factories dismissed workers, violating the ministry notice.
Talking to The Daily Star recently, Ruhul Amin, executive president of Garments Shramik Trade Union Centre, said during several meetings with government representatives and workers’ leaders, factory owners promised of not going for any lay-offs.
“But they didn’t keep that promise,” said Ruhul, adding, “In fact, many garment factory owners don’t care about instructions from the government and the BGMEA.”
According to his estimates, around 1,000 garment factories, many of which work under sub-contract basis, have remained closed.
Out of the total 40 lakh garment workers across the country, at least six lakhs have lost their jobs amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Ruhul claimed.
Bangladesh Garment Shramik Sanghati President Taslima Akhter said many garment factory owners “actually do not do what they tell the government and workers leaders during meetings.”
Referring to industrial police data, Rezwan Selim, director of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said 121 factories, which are members of the association, remained closed until yesterday in Gazipur.
On the other hand, 709 factories under the BGMEA remained operational, he said.
Earlier in the third week of last month, Rezwan had said around three lakh workers were left without work since their factories remained closed.
He said those factories went out of operation since buyers cancelled work orders.
“Although the three lakh workers don’t have work, they will get basic salaries on a regular basis. That’s why we can’t say that those three lakh workers have lost their jobs,” he said.
He hoped those people would be able to join work soon after the resumption of the factory operations.
Replying to a query, Rezwan had said different garment factories in Gazipur area fired around 5,000 workers following the outbreak of Covid-19 in March.
Contacted, Rezaul Haque, additional secretary of the labour and employment ministry, said the ministry instructed the inspector general of DIFE to enquire whether any factory declared lay-offs and terminated workers.
He said 23 crisis management committees were working across the country in this regard. “In case of any such allegations, the committee will investigate them and take legal actions against the respective factory authorities,” he said.
DIFE Inspector General Shib Nath Roy told The Daily Star that they were working to prepare a list of workers in different sectors, including the RMG.
“We are trying to provide financial or other kinds of assistance to the workers who have lost their jobs with funds from International Labour Organisation,” he said.
Replying to a query, Fazlul Haque Montu, a joint coordinator of Shramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad, a platform of workers and employees, said the data of BGMEA, industrial police and the labour ministry on the number of factories closed and workers sacked varied.
“We repeatedly requested factory authorities not to go for lay-offs, but the reality is many workers have lost their jobs,” he added.