Interviewing 237 ready-made garments workers from 22 factories, Working with Women Project- II of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation found that 3.6% of workers were infected with COVID-19 among 136 workers who were sick.
This was revealed in a virtual roundtable titled "Access to general and reproductive health services for RMG workers during new normal: challenges and opportunities" organised by the SNV Netherlands Development Organisation in association with The Daily Star yesterday.
Mentioning the Royal Netherlands Embassy's involvement and contribution in the policy level for workers' wellbeing to be continued, Senior Policy Adviser on SRHR and Gender of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands Mushfiqua Satiar emphasised on holistic approach through multi-stakeholder collaborative initiative to bring a solution to ensure workers wellbeing.
Hanifur Rahman, chairman of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association Standing Committee on Health Centres added the association's own finding, "We have found 492 Covid-19 positive patients so far, of whom, most were male. Of them, 415 recovered and returned to work."
Speakers iterated the need for community-based surveillance among RMG workers to understand the actual impact of Covid-19 on the community.
"We do not have any information on the percentage of Covid-19 patients in this community. What we do know is that 12 lakh people have been tested and 2 lakh tested positive. I do not know how representative [of the real picture] small sample sizes can be," said Ubaidur Rob, country director at Population Council Bangladesh.
Dr Dabir Uddin Ahmed, chief executive officer of Centre for Woman and Child Health said, "The RMG workers are not being tested. The government is saying that they are providing testing facilities but the workers are not getting tested -- this needs to change. Asymptomatic carriers can wreak havoc in a factory."
Maheen Sultan, lead researcher at Centre for Gender and Social Transformation, Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) said that under-reporting could be an issue because workers could be scared that complaining about symptoms could lead to a decrease in wages or loss of job.
Md Kawsar Ali, chief operating officer, Comfit Composite Knit Ltd, said, "After Eid we noticed a significant number of workers with flu-like symptoms. We are fearing that there will be movement during Eid, and there might be a health concern in August." He added that in his factory, pregnant women were asked to stay at home with full salary.
Discussants also spoke about how ccess to health services for RMG workers have been affected during the pandemic.
"We have about 2,000 workers. There are no proper healthcare services in our area. We had 22-23 deliveries during the pandemic and most of them went well. But there were certain cases where the mothers did not find healthcare, they did not find vaccination services for the newborns, and there was a child who had pneumonia after birth and passed away. We need affordable healthcare in the area," said Geetha Powani, CSR-Support at Alpha Clothing Ltd.
"Overall, unintended pregnancies and domestic violence have increased, but we need to do disease surveillance to see what effect this has had on the productive labour force," said Professor Dr Mohammad Mainul Islam, chairman of Department of Population Sciences at University of Dhaka.
Dr Md Sarwar Bari, director (finance) and line director, Directorate General of Family Planning pointed out, "They are at huge risk of unsafe abortions and we need to figure out how we can ensure the services they need."
Over 82 percent of the workers seek healthcare from their factories, instead of other establishments, said Prof Syed Abdul Hamid of Dhaka University's Institute of Health Economics while presenting the survey results.
"But most of the factories have unqualified nurses," said Dr Md Mostafizur Rahman Mian, director of PMK Hospital & Diagonostic Centre.
Several speakers pointed out that the workers' dependence on factory nurses may be a result of them being unable to access external healthcare because they have to be at work. This is especially true for those who work overtime.
"We could accumulate the corporate social responsibility fund of buyers, and use that to give health coverage to all factories," suggested Syful Alam Mallick, compliance manager, South Asia at Auchan International.
Dr Md Mustafizur Rahman, joint inspector general at the Department of Inspection For Factories and Establishments' health section also spoke at the event. Farhtheeba Rahat Khan, Team Leader, RMG Inclusive Business Programs of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation and Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star inaugurated the session jointly.