With a de facto lockdown in place across the country, the vulnerability of garment workers in Bangladesh has come to the fore like no other time before. On Saturday, uncertainty over their jobs and unpaid salaries as well as mixed messages from their employers and the authorities set off a frantic rush to return to Dhaka and other garment manufacturing hubs, despite the growing threats of a coronavirus outbreak in the country. With regular communications suspended, many walked for miles in close proximity, and travelled in crammed pickups and trucks, only to be met with closed gates when they finally reached their destinations. We are told that the desperation with which they returned was the same that forced them to leave their squalid, overcrowded living quarters in the first place, when the lockdown went into effect, fearing exposure to the virus. And then they returned, as the reports by The Daily Star show us, because they were told that factories would reopen and they would be paid.
It is the same story everywhere—a self-perpetuating cycle of uncertainty breeding desperation. What we find shocking in this whole fiasco is how the workers suffered and compromised public health during this emergency because of the greed of some factories, divisions among the industry leaders, as well as inefficiency of the relevant authorities. There was no central command, no specific guidelines from the government or BGMEA on factory closure, resulting in arbitrary action. “The situation could have been avoided had the factory owners notified the workers about the extension of the government’s general holiday up to April 11,” said an inspector general of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE). But the DIFE, which had allowed the factories to operate provided they had emergency safety protocols in place, cannot avoid responsibility for failing to give an unambiguous directive and act in unison with the government’s central decision to implement a “lockdown”. Unfortunately, the government, even now, is refusing to call it a lockdown, instead labelling it as a “holiday”, sending out mixed messages about its importance. It has announced a massive stimulus package to pay the salaries and allowances of workers and employees of the export-oriented industries, but clearly that benefit is yet to trickle down to those at the bottom of the chain of command.
Such indecision and lack of direction can have devastating consequences during this period of crisis, as we are already witnessing. Workers are not just cogs in the well-oiled machine of our RMG sector. They deserve protection, just like any other citizen. Equally importantly, if the community transmission of the deadly coronavirus is to be stopped, their role, as well as that of all people in the informal sector, is very vital. We urge the government to intervene in this matter and take appropriate measures.