The picture in yesterday's front page says it all. Hundreds of garment workers leaving their factory in Ashulia in crowds, totally disregarding the government's social distancing directives. This happened after the government decided to allow some garment factories to open while maintaining safety and health standards as stipulated during the Covid-19 crisis. Thus, around 1,000 factories across Savar-Ashulia, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chattogram industrial belts resumed production at a time. The result is not really surprising—already, 11 garment workers in Savar and Ashulia have tested positive for Covid-19.
It seems that the decision was taken before thinking things through, a regular phenomenon in most of the decisions taken regarding the RMG sector. When the decision to reopen the factories in phases was taken, the government also asked the factories to allow only workers in the locality of the factories to work. But in reality, garment workers who had gone to their villages when factories were closed, came back in droves in fear of losing their jobs, for a second time, thus nullifying the whole purpose of the lockdown—to prevent the spread of the virus. And now workers are again in very close proximity to each other and therefore, at high risk of getting infected.
We understand the pressing economic realities behind reopening the factories. But was this the right decision at this time? It seems not, as now the government is thinking of shutting them again in view of the number of positive cases among the workers.
At a recent interministeral meeting, it was decided that a joint-monitoring committee will be formed to monitor the health measures taken by the factories. We are at a loss as to why such a crucial committee was not formed before the decision to reopen was made. Now the authorities are talking about keeping Dhaka, Narayanganj and Gazipur isolated from the rest of the country, limiting the movement of RMG workers, increasing Covid-19 testing and quarantine facilities for workers and building coronavirus centres in specific zones. These are all very useful measures, but they should have been taken before opening the factories.
According to BGMEA, it has multiple audit teams who are checking whether factories are following the health protocols prepared by the BGMEA, according to WHO and ILO guidelines.
If the government decides to keep these factories open, then it must ensure that all the decisions taken so far to keep the workers safe are implemented immediately. But keeping workers safe inside factories is not enough. They must also maintain social distancing outside the factories too. Without such a holistic approach, the reopening process may have disastrous consequences.