Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
Millions of garment factory workers in Bangladesh have been released from work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving them without income and without choice but to return to cramped homes in slums or villages, without resources to fight the pandemic or even with the basic ability to sustain their lives. The garment and textile business is the number one industry in Bangladesh, accounting for 80% of the country’s exports. They are the 2nd largest individual country for apparel manufacturing in the world behind China and is where brands like H&M, Target and Marks and Spencer produce much of their goods. This dangerous cocktail of out-of-work, low-wage workers living in cramped slums without basic sanitation or the ability to isolate, coupled with the lack of income due to being laid off from the factories have the potential to leave the workers in a state of abject poverty and with the threat of an outbreak in this already vulnerable community. A situation which could also prove to be a ticking-time bomb for the country as a whole. The on-going virus lockdown has exposed the plight countless workers who have no jobs, no savings and no social security. The lockdown has caused immense sufferings in the lives of the workers as their income disappeared instantly. The phenomenon has sparked an unprecedented mass migration of the hapless workers to their village homes. Hundreds of these workers started leaving Dhaka at a time when public transport on roads was banned.
At the same time, water and rail travel was also suspended. Here is a heart breaking story of their difficult journey to their village homes. Before the lockdown, Abdul Mazid, 40, used to work as a mason in Dhaka city. Hailing from Chapainawabganj district, he earned up to Tk 800 a day and sent most of his earnings home. Both work and wages dried up after the Bangladesh authorities declared a total lockdown on April 7 to prevent the spread of coronavirus. On the day, Mazid took an instant decision to set for his village home. The shutting down of all transport meant that he was forced to travel on foot and sometimes by pedal-run rickshaw or rickshaw van on his way to Chapainawab- ganj. On several occasions he had to handover money to on-duty police or Ansar personnel during the difficult journey. However, most of the time, Mazid had walked with macadam in his sandals in the rising heat. During the arduous journey, he had survived on water and biscuits. However, he was not alone. Hundreds of workers fled the locked down city of Dhaka and trekked home to their villages in various districts. Sprawled together, all of them began their journeys. They carried their paltry belongings-usually food, water and clothes – in cheap rexine and cloth bags. The young men carried worn and shabby backpacks. They walked under the sun and under the stars. A large number of them said they had run out of money and were afraid they would starve. Clearly, a lockdown to stave off a pandemic had turned into a humanitarian crisis.
However, these informal workers are the backbone of the capital city’s economy, constructing houses, cooking food, serving in eateries, delivering takeaways, cutting hair in salons, making automobiles, plumbing toilets, delivering newspapers, pulling rickshaws, working in brick kilns, tea gardens, farms and houses as well as in cottage industry, among other things. Before the lockdown, the streets of Dhaka remained abuzz with informal economic activity. The city was a microcosm of informal employment where hundreds of thousands migrate to from rural areas every year in search of jobs. People in the informal sector are a vital source of economic lifeline in our daily lives. These are autonomous, self-realised human beings generating economic output: hawkers, tea stall owners, phone top-up businesses, fish and vegetable vendors and day labourers. As per sources at the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), workers of the informal sector remain vulnerable as they are yet to be brought under the purview of law. As to why, people employed in this sector are deprived of benefits and social protection in absence of employment contracts. Presently, nearly 88.5 per cent workers are employed in the informal sector. In Bangladesh the sector has come to have a unique significance as a driver of economic growth where job opportunities are severely lacking and human development lags behind. In a shocking development amidst the countrywide lockdown, thousands of garment workers have returned to work in Dhaka.
Also Gazipur, Narayanganj and other districts in the last few days as the factories they work in have reopened. Reportedly, 2,356 of the estimated 7,602 garment factories across the country resumed operations last Wednesday. According to the BGMEA vice-president, around two lakh workers may have returned to work from outside Dhaka by this time. The implications in terms of how this sudden influx of workers will spread the novel coronavirus are ominous. Although the factories were instructed by the authorities to call only workers who are staying within the vicinity of the factories and the owners also assured the government that they would not call workers from outside Dhaka, it seems some workers from outside were called to join work by the factory management, according to news reports. Therefore, it is obvious that the message was not given clearly enough by the government. What is important to ask here is: were the workers given any assurance that even if they did not return to work during the lockdown, they would still have their jobs and be given salaries? Unless they are assured of their job security and given due salaries to pull through during this period, how can we expect them to stay in the villages and go hungry with their families? Questions should also be asked about whether these workers actually got any support from the government’s stimulus packages. It is most unfortunate that many garment owners have disregarded the advice of the health experts and reopened their factories without formulating a safety guideline for the workers.
Now that these factories have resumed operations, there is a risk of wider transmission of the virus unless proper safety and social distancing measures are ensured at workplaces and on their way to and from homes. The factories who have called in workers from outside Dhaka violating the government instructions should be held to account, and action should also be taken against the factories that are not ensuring social distancing and health safety measures in line with the government directives. And if the government is really serious about enforcing the lockdown measures, it should make sure that no more garment workers leave their village homes to join work. That will only be possible if they are given financial assistance to survive during this period and also assured that they will not lose their jobs.
Escaping poverty in their villages, most of the informal sector workers live in squalid housing in congested Dhaka ghettos and aspire for upward mobility. But, the lockdown had turned them into refugees overnight.Their workplaces were shut, and most employees and contractors who paid them vanished. Hundreds of workers desperately tried to return homes in their villages.Wanting to go home in a crisis is natural. If Bangladeshi students, tourists and pilgrims stranded overseas want to return, so do labourers in big cities. They also wanted to go home to their villages. Finally, battling hunger and fatigue, they got back to where they belong. Home in the village ensures food and the comfort of their families. =
Social security of these workers lies in their villages, where they have assured food and accommodation. With work coming to a halt and jobs gone, they now look for social security and returned home.However, what is alarming is that the fleeing workers might have carried coronavirus with them, thereby spreading it. Hundreds of workers who eventually reached home, either on foot or by rickshaw vans or other means moved into their joint family homes, often with ageing parents. Sixty-five districts could turn out to be potential hotspots as hundreds of workers returned home. They need to be tested for the virus, and isolate infected people in local facilities. The safety and health of our workers is paramount today. In the face of an infectious disease outbreak, how we protect our workers now clearly dictates how safe our communities are, as this pandemic evolves. We firmly believe the administration is responsive enough to the safety and health of the workers. At the same time, it is well-aware about the plight of these workers who are in financial distress. The country has been on lock down since March 26, and as of the time of publication, the Bangladeshi government is reporting 48 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 5 coronavirus-related deaths. This is a number questioned by many as it is disproportionately low compared to the population, especially considering the high number of migrant workers that have returned from infected regions. Workers in Bangladesh and China who produce goods for the fashion and tech industry face huge social, economic and health challenges in normal times. Now with covid they doubly suffer as global.
Writer and Columnist