In a shocking development amidst the countrywide lockdown, thousands of garment workers have returned to work in Dhaka, 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.