Hundreds of thousands of workers in the readymade garment sector have been laid off since last year, despite factory owners receiving a Tk 8,000 crore stimulus packagefrom the government to pay their salaries during the pandemic.
An estimate by Bangladesh Centre for Workers' Solidarity (BCWS) puts the number of workers who lost their jobs in one year, till April, at at least 300,000.
Many received no salary and severance pay and those who retained their jobs, had to take a significant pay cut.
Workers suffered a 35 percent pay cut during the shutdown last year, according to an estimate of a recent report and BCWS.
The report titled "The Weakest Link in the Global Supply Chain: How the Pandemic is Affecting Bangladesh's Garment Workers", launched on Thursday, revealed that RMG factories have sacked or furloughed on average 10 percent of their workers and may let go a further 35 percent of their workers in the future if the current situation -- fewer orders, price reductions on new orders, and delayed payments -- does not improve.
It also referred to data from a survey by the Centre for Global Workers' Rights last year that found 72.4 percent of furloughed workers did not get their due salary and 80.4 percent of laid off workers did not get their severance pay.
The report was brought out by the Institute for Human Rights and Business and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Centre for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, with support from UNDP Bangladesh and the Swedish government.
Many of these workers are still unemployed or are working as day labourers as RMG factories are at present barely recruiting workers.
This correspondent spoke to 35 workers and former workers of various factories in Dhaka and Narayanganj, who have suffered job loss or salary cuts since the pandemic struck last year.
All 35 workers said that they did not receive full wages during last year's shutdown when their factories were closed.
Shahana (not her real name), a worker at a factory in Narayanganj, said, "I was paid 50 percent of my salary for three months last year when the factory was closed due to the national shutdown. Some senior workers protested against this decision and were summarily sacked."
She added that overtime has been cut down too.
"I used to do more than 200 hours of overtime per month in 2019. Now, I cannot do any overtime due to cancellation of orders."
She estimated that she earned around Tk 17,000-18,000 per month, including bonus and overtime, in 2019.
"Now, I can earn only Tk 10,000 per month in total," she added.
Other workers echoed her experience, saying they received between 50 to 65 percent of their salaries during the months of the shutdown last year and have been earning around 50 percent less than what they made in 2019 with overtime and benefits.
Such significant cuts to their income have had a significantly detrimental impact on their living conditions.
Roksana, working at a factory in Savar, used to live with her husband -- an auto-rickshaw driver -- and two children in a rented apartment nearby. She had to let it go in January this year as they could not afford to live in Savar anymore on her nearly-halved salary of Tk 10,000.
Her husband and two children had to return to the village in search of work while she is living in a shared room with several other workers.
"I can hardly bear my family's expenses," Roksana said, adding, "The most unfortunate fact is that with this income I don't think I will be able to pay for my children's schools anymore if my husband cannot get a decent job, as I also have to send money to my elderly parents."
Sakina, another worker who works at a factory in Ashulia, said, "The factory owners have reduced our salary but they don't consider that our house rent and the price of commodities have not decreased."
For her, this has meant sacrificing food and nutrition for her family.
"With this income, we can hardly afford rice, fish, and vegetables. I have forgotten the taste of beef, mutton, and chicken. We cannot even afford milk and fruits for our children."
FACTORY OWNERS, BRANDS 'INDIFFERENT'
Labour leader and BCWS Executive Director Kalpona Akter said, "In most cases, very rich industrialists who can pay their workers for months without running their factories received the stimulus package last year. Small and medium scale factories who are mostly sub-contractors for bigger factories did not get any assistance and had to close their operations or minimise their production costs."
Kalpona also accused buyers of not acting responsibly.
"According to our estimation, more than 50 percent of suppliers had to accept orders below average cost and many brands cancelled orders last year. The apathy of brands and industrialists' indifference towards workers' rights resulted in mass layoff of workers and massive salary cuts in this sector," she said.
Also at stake are workers' salaries and Eid bonus before the festival.
Begum Shamsunnahar Bhuiyan MP, executive president of Mahila Sramik League and a member of the parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Labour and Employment, said, "We have already asked the industrialists to pay salaries and festival bonuses by May 10. They are again demanding an additional Tk 10,000 crore stimulus package from the government to pay the salary and festival bonus.
"I have suggested the government form a database of RMG workers and this time to pay the funds directly to the workers who lost their jobs and who are in need."
Arshad Jamal, a director of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said, "It is true that mostly large factories benefitted from the stimulus package last year as its disbursement depends on export quantity and bank-client relationship."
Arshad claimed as large-scale factories employ most of the four million RMG workers in the country, "layoffs by small and medium-scale factories did not have any significant impact on the industry".
Regarding BGMEA's repeated demand for another stimulus package, Arshad said, "Our buyers still consider us an importing sourcing country due to the economic collapse in neighbouring countries. So, we should keep our industry alive for a better future."
"Last year, we got this stimulus package in two phases as loans with initially two percent and 4.5 percent interest for the second phase which incurred additional expenditure for us. Nevertheless, we are yet to recover from pandemic-inflicted losses and the Covid-19 situation may worsen this year," he added.
"We are also developing a complete database of all the RMG workers to ensure that funds from the stimulus package reach the right person."
NO EFFECTIVE COVID-19 PRECAUTIONS
Workers said they are also very worried about the worsening Covid-19 situation as they cannot hope for medical assistance from their employers if they are infected.
This time around, garments and other factories have been told they can stay open during the lockdown from April 14.
The workers also alleged that most factories did not take any effective measures to ensure hygiene rules and social distancing, and did not arrange workers' transportation to and from the factory during the ongoing lockdown despite government's instructions regarding this.
Shumon, a worker of a factory in Savar, said, "Our factory authorities installed hand-washing booths and provided hand sanitisers and masks in the beginning. Now, most of the workers do not care about maintaining hygiene and our bosses also do not bother about it. Maintaining social distancing is impossible in the factory."
Roksana concurred, saying, "Every day I go to the factory with 15 of my colleagues crammed in a small laguna as there is no other public transport currently. How can we maintain hygiene and social distance?"
Many workers said they do not even inform their supervisors about sickness as they tend to be sanctioned with 14 days leave without payment.
Azahar*, a worker from Ashulia, said, "One of my colleagues informed the factory physician about his fever. He was prescribed a Covid-19 test and some medicines which cost around Tk 2,000.
"He could not afford the test and medicines and joined work with fever. The next day, he was given 14 days of leave without pay."
Azahar said workers cannot bear these costs and the travel to Dhaka on their current income, or to go unpaid for so long.
Shumon said, "At present, our biggest fear is losing our job. If we get infected, there is no doubt that we shall lose our job.
"And if we lose our job, we shall not get any job in the near future as none of the factories are taking new workers."
*RMG workers names' have been changed to protect their identities