Lives vs Livelihoods: RMG workers share their thoughts about returning to work

May 17, 2020 | Dhaka, Bangladesh

On April 25, the BGMEA announced that it would be reopening member factories on a zone by zone basis. Factories were encouraged to operate on limited capacity and workers living nearby were given the green light to return to work. All factories were instructed to resume operations with 30% of the workforce to allow for social distancing measures during an initial phase.  

Lives vs Livelihoods

Guidelines were published by various groups. Better Work for example published the Covid-19 Management Guidance with an associated self-assessment checklist for RMG and footwear factories. The comprehensive guideline aimed to improve the preparedness and response of workplaces dealing with Covid-19 and covered areas such as effective prevention, management and mitigations systems and controls. In addition, the BGMEA announced that it would be initiating a field monitoring system with a dedicated team to undertake surprise audits at operational factories. They later announced that 144 factories had satisfactory results following the health and safety audits. 

However, many are still concerned. Union leaders have expressed their fears that measures will not be sufficient and at the time of writing, between 20-100 RMG are thought to be infected with Covid-19

On one hand, there are grave concerns around the safety and wellbeing of workers returning to work on the other hand, a growing fear that if factories remain closed for much longer, many will go bust altogether, creating mass redundancies. To understand how the workers themselves feel about returning to work amidst a partial lockdown, Industry Bangladesh interviewed RMG workers at several different factories. 

When asked how workers felt about their job security at this time, most expressed concern about whether they would be kept on for much longer. ‘At first when I heard our factory would close, I was relieved’ says one of the female workers interviewed. ‘I have two children to look after. But after a few weeks we started to get worried. I did not know if the factory would ask me to come back’. 

Unlike developed countries, workers who lose their jobs have no social security to fall back on and little to no personal savings. For RMG workers, retaining their jobs is essential to maintain household needs. 

‘If I cannot return to work, how is my family meant to continue?’ one sewing operator says. 

‘I am stuck. Yes, I may suffer for the virus, but if I do not have income I will suffer from hunger’ another operator states. 

Factories across Bangladesh have released data showing the extent that order cancellations have impacted them financially. A total of 1150 factories reported 3.8 billion dollars’ worth of order cancellations and suspensions that is thought to have affected 2.28 million workers.  Most factories pay upfront for raw material and production costs. In the event a cancellation or suspension occurs, factories are left with little to no revenue to clear their liabilities or pay their wages. Add to this, a now growing pressure to deliver on goods that have not been cancelled. With huge liabilities already overhead, many fear that if production does not continue their businesses will go bust altogether.  In addition, there are concerns that if they stay closed for too long, brands may divert order production to competing countries causing prolonged economic strain. 

When asked how he felt about reopening his factory, one company director said ‘we are taking steps to ensure that the factory remains a safe place to work. Anyone who calls in sick is told to stay at home and assured that full wages will be paid. We have had several thousand pieces cancelled most of which had already started sewing. I am concerned if we cannot ship out what little orders we have left, we’ll be done altogether’. 

Raisha Sajjad | Industry Bangladesh