SEATTLE, Washington — Bangladesh’s garment industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the country. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been detrimental to the industry and its workers, even as factories are gradually reopening following lockdowns. Even before the pandemic, garment workers in Bangladesh had already struggled with unsafe working conditions, low wages, excessive hours and a plethora of rights violations from their superiors.
Lockdown Causes Layoffs
Fatema Akhtar, a 25-year-old woman, had been working in the garment industry for five years as the sole provider for her family. However, in late March, she was laid off from her work due to the lockdown issued by the Bangladeshi government, leaving her without pay to support her family.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down many industries, outside of those related to food, hygiene, shelter or medical and clinical supplies. The garment industry is one of many that have been affected by the pandemic. Global clothing brands such as H&M, Walmart, JCPenney, Bennetton, Gap and others have lost a significant amount of sales and profits. As a result, they have had to cut back on both wages and employee numbers in their factories causing many factories to shut down amid the pandemic, displacing many garment workers in Bangladesh. Other companies such as Kendall + Kylie have continued production in their factories in Bangladesh, but have allegedly refused to pay garment workers due to dropping sales. This has caused many garment workers to take to the streets and protest for wages, stimulus packages and government benefits.
Government Stimulus Package Facilitates Reopening
However, amid the economic shutdowns and growing concerns about the pandemic, the Bangladeshi government has since responded to garment workers. The government introduced an $8 billion stimulus package which is about 2.5% of the country’s GDP. The stimulus package offers support to factories as they slowly begin to reopen due to the demands of workers. Reopening factories and the stimulus package have allowed garment workers to return to their jobs and for factories to have a platform to hold onto amid the global recession.
According to the Dhaka-based newspaper The Daily Star, the garment industry is picking back up now due to both the stimulus package and the slowly increasing demand for clothes yet again. As for garment workers, they are receiving free COVID-19 testing by testing centers that have been set up by the factories. These centers are contributing to both national testing and keeping their workers safe. Face masks and face coverings are also required, while social distancing measures are enforced within the factories as well.
The Future of Garment Workers in Bangladesh
Although garment workers in Bangladesh are returning to the workforce as factories reopen, there is still a long way to go before these workers have fair treatment and workers’ rights. The garment industry is one of Bangladesh’s largest economic sectors, yet garment workers still do not have basic benefits, healthcare, minimum wage rights or unions.
Sampa Akter, another garment worker in Bangladesh, told NPR that when her factory had been shut down, she had been unable to pay for her disabled brother’s medical bills. Even after factories have reopened following the government’s stimulus package, a lack of demand for garment products has continued to harm the industry.
Although Bangladesh is not the richest country, the government should make it a priority to keep its workers safe and economically stable. Recent protests by garment workers can be seen as precursors to fighting for more changes in the future.
– Sadat Tashin
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