Workers walk miles on end
The sudden government decision to reopen export-oriented factories from this morning amid the lockdown left thousands of workers in the lurch.
In the absence of public transport, they suffered badly on their way back to their workplaces, mainly in the capital, Savar, Gazipur and Narayanganj, throughout yesterday. Many of them had gone to their village homes to spend the Eid.
On Friday, a government circular said export industries, including garment factories, will be out of the ongoing 14-day lockdown's purview from today. Caught off-guard by the announcement, the workers had no other choice but to take the rough ride from different parts of the country.
Meanwhile, a circular from the Press Information Department (PID) last night said public transport would be allowed to operate till noon today to facilitate the workers' return to work.
Since yesterday morning, hapless workers were seen riding rickshaw vans, trawlers, goods-laden pickup trucks and even walking on highways along with their family members to reach their workplaces. Many of them said they were going through so much suffering only to save their jobs.
Defying the Covid health guidelines, they scrambled at different ferry ghats to travel across rivers, causing a complete chaos and exposing themselves to the risk of virus infection.
Some aggrieved workers in Rangpur blocked a road, protesting the government decision to reopen factories without allowing public transport.
Labour leaders, meanwhile, lambasted the decision.
"This is a whimsical and irresponsible decision by the government. The decision forced workers to rush to workplaces by any means in the absence of public transport. Workers are treated as guinea pigs. Neither the government nor the factory owners think of the workers' wellbeing," Shahidullah Chowdhury, president of Bangladesh Trade Union Centre, told The Daily Star yesterday.
The government decision to reopen the factories came apparently due to constant pressure from factory owners. It happened although health officials had recommended extending the lockdown beyond August 5 to stem surging Covid infections and deaths across the country.
Garment owners had been persuading the government to reopen the factories from August 1, after a seven-day Eid vacation.
On July 27, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told reporters that the ongoing lockdown would continue till August 5, considering the Covid-19 situation. "Although the factory owners pleaded for the reopening, we can't accept their request."
But two days after this statement, the cabinet division said that all export-oriented industries and factories would be out of the restriction's purview from August 1. The decision was made taking the "overall situation" in mind, it said.
The circular was issued a few hours after the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) recommended extending the lockdown. On Friday, DGHS Director General Prof ABM Khurshid Alam told reporters that if the government reopened everything, infections would definitely rise. He also said, "If the infections increase, we will not be able to accommodate patients at the hospitals."
The country has been going through a massive health crisis due to a spike in Covid infections and deaths over the last one month, caused by the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Earlier yesterday, an official of Bangladesh Railway said they were yet to be communicated about any formal decision on resuming train operations.
In Mymensingh, thousands of garment workers were seen desperately trying to return to their workplaces, mainly in Dhaka and Gazipur.
Anamul Haque from Shymganj in Netrakona was seen walking along with his wife and two children in Shambhugan Bazar of Mymensingh. They had managed to reach Shambhugan Bazar in a vehicle, which was not allowed to go any further.
"I was informed around 9:30pm on Friday that I have to join my factory in Muna on Sunday. It is very hard for us to make such journeys in such a short notice," he said.
In Pabna, people left the town on trucks. Due to the lockdown, people from different areas of northern districts reached Hatikumrul, Kodda, Saydabad and different points on the Bangabandhu Bridge, thinking they would be able to reach their destination somehow from there.
Most of the workers were seen travelling on trucks flouting health safety rule.
In Tangail, crowds of Dhaka-bound passengers were seen at various points on the highways in different areas, including Hatikumrul intersection and Kadda intersection in Sirajganj on the western end of Bangabandhu Bridge and Elenga in Tangail at the eastern end of the bridge.
Nasima Akter and Raihan Mia, a couple working at a garment in Ashulia area of Savar, said they knew the factories would reopen once the lockdown was over. But suddenly they had to leave in a hurry. They suffered immensely on the road.
In Rangpur, several hundred people blocked the Rangpur-Dhaka highway for at least four hours from 11:00am yesterday in protest against not getting vehicles to reach their destinations in Dhaka.
"If we fail to reach our factories before it the reopening on Sunday, many of us will lose their jobs," said Md Moudud Hossain, a garment factory worker.
In Gazipur, people were seen walking and riding on trucks and auto-rickshaws to reach their workstations, flouting health safety rules.
People were gathering in different points on the highway to get transport. Whenever they saw a truck, people raced to cling on to the vehicle.
Rafiqul Islam, who was waiting for transport, told The Daily Star that he had already spent Tk 2,090 to reach Jaina Bazar of Sreepur from Haluaghat of Mymensingh.
Sadek Hossain, another worker from Mymensingh, said that he had started the journey for his factory in Tongi around 4:00am. "But it took seven hours to reach Chandana intersection and I have already spent Tk 2,500," he said.
In Munshiganj, a total of 10 ferries operated from Shimulia ghat to carry only passengers since yesterday morning.
Shafiqul Islam, deputy general manager at Shimulia Ghat, said due to pressure of the passengers, they were operating 10 ferries and if needed more ferries would be operated.
In Barishal, the situation was like the other parts of the country as the passenger buses are not operating. Workers were seen travelling on motorcycles, three-wheelers and goods-laden vehicles to reach to their workplaces.
WHAT LABOUR LEADERS SAY
The decision to reopen the factories should have been announced well in advance to avoid a mad rush of workers to rejoin their workplaces, said Nazma Akter, president of Sammilito Garment Sramik Federation.
In the absence of public transport, they went through great tribulation, she said.
Towhidur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Apparels Workers Federation, echoed the same.
The government decision totally disregarded the workers, 70 percent of whom left for their village homes given the 14-day lockdown, said Shahidullah Chowdhury, coordinator of Sramik Karmachari Oikkya Parishad.
"Now, they have to return, which increases the risk of the spread of coronavirus among workers," he said, adding that the government and garment factory owners must take the responsibility in case they get Covid-19.
Asked, Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, (BGMEA), said, "We will start operations with the workers who are already in the factories or are staying at their residences near the factories".
He made the comment while instructing to resume production from today with the available workforce.
At most, 50 percent of the workers went to their village homes before the Eid vacation, he claimed.
Besides, many workers hail from places like Maona, Bhaluka, Kashimpur, Narsingdi, Narayanganj, Manikganj and Gazipur areas, where nearly 40 percent of the garment factories are located.
It is the workers who hail from the northern districts, Tangail and Mymensingh who will have to face difficulty in returning to their workstations for the lack of public transport, said Hassan, also the managing director of Giant Group.
Those workers can join when public transport service resumes, he said, adding that nobody will lose their jobs for failing to report to duty today, he said.
[Our correspondents in the districts contributed to this report]