Dhaka, Bangladesh
RMG workers face bleak future

Impact of coronavirus outbreak

RMG workers face bleak future

New mode of production may provide some solace

Saiful Anam Garment workers in Bangladesh are facing a grim future for their livelihood as more than a million workers either have lost their jobs or furloughed because of order cancellations and the failure of buyers to pay for canceled shipments. A survey of factory owners in Bangladesh released Friday showed millions of Bangladesh factory workers being sent home without the wages or severance pay they are owed. The BGMEA reported that 1.8 billion US dollars in orders have been put on hold and another $1.4 billion dollars have been cancelled. Cancellations of planned orders, for April-December peak period, amounted to nearly 1.7 billion dollars, it said. The figures are conservative because they exclude orders that would go to multiple buyers. The new data were incorporated into a report by Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington-based labour-rights organization. Bangladesh manufacturers and labour groups have been appealing to big retailers to honour their commitments to suppliers. Soon after the Prime Minister's announcement Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) asked all its members to shut their factories during the general holiday announced for the coronavirus outbreak and called on workers to stay home during the time. The decision came after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasian in a nationwide address on Wednesday announced Tk 5,000 crore stimulus package for the export-oriented industries to fight the impact of the disease on the country’s economy. Almost all of the bailout funds go to the factory owners of the RMG industry that earns 34 billion US dollars annually. The fund for workers employed in the export industries can be used only for paying wages and allowances to the workers and other employees. After the first known COVID-19 case was reported in the country on Mar 8, many worker groups called for closure of the apparel factories considering their health risk. But BGMEA chief Rubana Huq had said, “Every factory owner will decide themselves on shutting the plants. Or the government will provide a guideline. BGMEA is not an authority that can give a decision on this. ” After Hasina’s address to the nation on Wednesday urging the people to stay at home, Rubana said in a statement on Thursday that the prime minister gave specific guidelines for protection from the virus. “As the largest industrial sector, we must set an example by following the prime minister’s guidelines. I hope [the owners] will consider closing factories in this circumstance,” the BGMEA chief said. If any factory remains open, it must ensure protec- -tion of workers from the virus and take the liabilities for them, Rubana said. Bangladesh, the second-largest apparel producer in the world, is feeling the effects of the global coronaviurs pandemic, as manufacturers are hit with order cancellations. However, on Sunday last, Rubana said western buyers and brands either suspended or cancelled purchase orders worth more than 1.49 billion dollars. “The buyers are inhumanly cancelling the work orders forcing millions of workers to be jobless,” she said, adding that at least 1,089 factories employing 1.2 million workers received such notices as of Sunday evening. Orders placed for April were also being cancelled, putting the factory owners and the workers in a dire situation, she said. “The buyers cited closure of their outlets because of the pandemic to cancel the orders, but they did not consider how the factory workers at the source will survive,” Huq said calling on retailers to play their part in paying the workers’ wages. Rubana Huq in a letter urged Germany’s Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Mueller to immediately call on all German brands sourcing from Bangladesh not to cancel or hold any shipments. “While the businessmen in Germany receive government support and address their losses, at our end we have an existential problem as we have to pay our workers,” she wrote. Cancellations may lead to serious social unrest when factories will fail to pay their workers. “I’m certain no German brands would like see that happen on their account,” Huq says. She told journalists that she would write similar letters to ministers in other countries. Some retailers and big suppliers are also coming up with good promises. Sweden’s H&M has said it will pay suppliers for orders already under production. PVH, which owns the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Heritage brands, has told suppliers it is releasing invoices that had been put on hold since March 18. Later invoices will gradually be processed. The commitment for orders already under production or finished products not yet shipped would enable factory owners to get financing to tide them over, said a letter to suppliers seen by The Associated Press. “PVH and H&M are doing the right thing, in contrast to the long list of brands refusing to pay for goods workers have already made for them,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. Big Western brands came under heavy pressure to improve conditions in factories after huge fires and other disasters killed hundreds of workers. The store closures and other disruptions from the virus outbreak are straining a fragile supply chain in which big buyers have been squeezing their suppliers for years. Some of the factories are running their operations to cater changed demands on domestic and global markets. They plan to export PPE and so necessitated by the pandemic. Adaption to new realities of economy and trade is being seen as imperative.

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