Thousands of garment workers yesterday returned to work in industrial belts in Dhaka and elsewhere amid the nationwide shutdown, raising fears of a rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.
The influx of workers, desperate to reach the factories permitted to resume operation, happened a day after Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said no one would be allowed to enter the capital from outside for work.
In the absence of public transport, they travelled by pickup vans and battery-run autorickshaws, paying two to three times the usual fare to reach their workplaces.
Of the 7,602 garment factories across the country, 2,356 ran operation yesterday. Of those, 443 are in Dhaka, 638 in Gazipur, 605 in Chattogram, 301 in Narayanganj, 80 in Mymensingh and 289 in Khulna, said the Industrial Police.
After a meeting with garment factory owners on Tuesday, the home minister said garment workers would not be allowed to enter the capital from outside as apparel factories would run on a limited scale with workers now staying in the city.
Contacted yesterday, the minister said he was worried to see garment workers returning to Dhaka.
"I don't know why the workers are coming back to Dhaka," he told The Daily Star.
"Garment owners yesterday [on Tuesday] assured me that they would not ask any worker outside Dhaka to join work. We will ask the owners why and how workers are coming to Dhaka."
He further said it was practically impossible to prevent such a huge number of people from entering Dhaka.
"The workers may be thinking that they will lose their jobs… that's why they are returning to Dhaka," added the minister.
Health experts say the move to reopen factories, mostly garment units, will increase the risk of wider transmission of the virus unless proper health safety measures and social distancing are ensured at workplaces and on their way to and from homes.
"This decision [to reopen factories] is not right. It will put the people at a serious risk," Prof Muzaherul Huq, former adviser (Southeast Asia Region) of the World Health Organisation, told The Daily Star recently.
"This is a total violation of the lockdown principle which means people stay at home and maintain social distancing… this would increase the rate of infections…"
The expert said the government might have made the decision considering the economic aspects, but it should not allow factory owners to resume operation before formulation of a safety guideline for workers.
THEY KEPT COMING
Yesterday, two ferry terminals at Shimulia-Kathalbari and Paturia-Dauladia became crowded with hundreds of workers desperate to reach Dhaka and other areas from south-western districts.
Officials and staffers at the terminals said a large number of people crossed the Padma river by ferries on Monday, a day after many garment factories resumed operation. The number of passengers went up significantly on Tuesday and yesterday.
"Today, the rush is like that of normal times," said Shamsul Abedin, assistant manager of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC), at Kathalbari terminal.
Police personnel were there but it was not possible for them to intercept such a huge number of people, he pointed out.
Now seven ferries are transporting vehicles carrying goods and vehicles for emergency services a day. Usually, 15 to 17 ferries ply the route, he added.
A BIWTC staffer at Shimulia terminal said the number of people crossing the river rose sharply over the last three days.
"A few minutes ago, a ferry anchored at the terminal with around 800 people. It was full to the brim," he told this newspaper around 2:30pm.
The situation was the same at Paturia-Daulatdia Ferry Terminal.
Zillur Rahman, BIWTC deputy general manager at the terminal, said the number of people using ferries increased after police withdrew barricades there on Monday.
Ohidul Islam, a worker of a garment factory in Tongi, said the manager of his factory phoned him on Monday and asked him to leave his village home in Bagerhat for the workplace.
"I didn't dare to question him why I needed to travel such a long distance to join work when the authorities said our wages would be deposited to our bKash accounts."
"Overcoming all the obstacles on the road, I reached Tongi from Bagerhat to save my job," he added.
Our Gazipur correspondent saw a large number of people, mostly workers, on Dhaka-Mymensingh Highway. They were travelling to Gazipur and Dhaka, defying all the odds.
Police put up barricades in Bhabanipur and didn't let any vehicle cross the area to enter Gazipur. Many people, however, crossed the area on foot and then took battery-run autorickshaws to reach their destinations.
In Narayanganj, many workers travelled from Cumilla and Laxmipur to join work at the garment factories in the industrial belt.
Asked about yesterday's influx, Md Rezaul Haque, additional secretary at the labour ministry, said the owners had promised that they would not ask workers staying outside Dhaka to join work at their factories.
"We don't know how and why the workers are coming to Dhaka," he said.
There are 23 crisis management committees to see whether factory owners are violating the government instructions while running their factories, mentioned Rezaul.
"We will take action if any factory owner has called in workers from outside Dhaka. Steps will be taken if social distancing and health safety measures are not ensured in factories in line with the government instructions," he warned.
Ruhil Amin, executive president of Garments Sramik Trade Union Centre, alleged that the owners of many factories are asking their workers to join work from outside Dhaka, ignoring the decision of the government and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
He also claimed that most of the factories are not ensuring social distancing and health safety measures for workers.
Contacted, BGMEA President Rubana Huq said they clearly said the workers who are staying outside Dhaka need not return and that their wages for April will be deposited to their accounts.
"We also told our members that no attempt should be made to bring back workers …" she wrote in a text message to this newspaper.
She further mentioned that the BGMEA conveyed to the members that it would not cooperate with them if they don't follow its guidelines which clearly say no workers from outside should return to work.
"Hundreds out of millions of workers heading for Dhaka just proves that this is an isolated case and is not under anyone's control," she added.
BGMEA Vice President Arshad Jamal Dipu said about 42 percent garment workers have so far joined work, and most of them are from Dhaka and adjacent areas.
He, however, mentioned that around two lakh workers may have returned to work from outside Dhaka.
"We did not call them … They might have returned, knowing that factories are reopening. We have strictly instructed the authorities of factories not to bring back workers from outside Dhaka," he told The Daily Star last night.
He further said the factories introduced several measures to ensure safety of workers.
"Though we found some shortcomings on the first day, the situation has improved a lot. We did not get any complaint regarding safety issues as of today," added Arshad.