Worker from Bangladesh works in a garment factory in Gazipur suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on March 6, 2020.
Mehedi Hasan | NurPhoto | Getty Images
SINGAPORE The coronavirus outbreak has left the clothing sector in Bangladesh feeling shaken and thousands of factory workers carried the brunt as their livelihoods were suddenly taken away from them.
The clothing industry has long been the lifeblood of the economy, but as the pandemic devastated the world, billions of dollars worth of orders were canceled as global retailers closed their doors and brands kept their orders.
Prior to the blast, 22-year-old Mousumi, who declined to give her last name, began a new job at a garment factory in January after being out of work since 2018. She made about 10,000 Bangladeshi heels ($ 118). every month until March, when factories around the country were ordered to close in order to slow the spread of the virus.
When the factories reopened with limited capacity in April, Mousumi said it had been put on standby for three months. Then, on August 1, she said she was fired.
“They were only saying one thing: that they are being fired because of the coronavirus,” Mousumi said, according to the CNBC translation of her remarks into Bengali.
Dulali, also 22, lost her job at ABA Fashions Limited in April where she made up to 11,000 heels a month with overtime pay. She has since struggled to secure employment. Like Mousumi, she was told the pandemic would be blamed.
“They said because of the coronavirus, there were no new orders coming in and the factory owner was struggling to pay the workers,” Dulali said, according to the CNBC translation of her remarks into Bengali. She said her job search had been in vain and that many others like her were looking for work.
Dulali is living with her eight-year-old daughter. “We are living in a lot of trouble right now,” she told CNBC. She said they owe about 16,000 heel rent. They are now accumulating with her earnings of about 500 heels each month as a cook to her owner a portion of the salary she received to earn.
CNBC spoke to six workers, including Mousumi and Dulali, by telephone through the Bangladeshi Federation of Independent Clothing Workers, which works with various unions. Some of them are employed, while others say they have been looking for work since April or May.
They all talked about the financial difficulties they face, including possible poverty, exacerbated by the damaging impact of the pandemic.
As the virus spread, many major retail brands canceled orders that were already in production. The Bangladesh Association of Garment Manufacturers and Exporters (BGMEA) estimated that the pandemic had an immediate impact on 1,150 factories that reported cancellations of orders worth $ 3.18 billion. Between March and June this year, Bangladesh lost $ 4.9 billion worth of clothing compared to the same period in 2019, according to BGMEA.
BGMEA told CNBC that in the last three to four months its member factories have reported that 71,000 workers have been laid off. A spokesman said most factories have refurbished workers who had been employed for less than a year.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest clothing exporter after China alone, according to rating agency Moody’s.
The garment industry is a major source of export revenue for the country. Ready-made garments accounted for 83% of Bangladesh’s total exports worth $ 33.67 billion in its fiscal year 2019-2020, according to data posted by BGMEA.
More than 4,600 garment factories in Bangladesh produce shirts, T-shirts, jackets, sweaters and trousers. The garments are shipped mainly to Europe, the United States and Canada, to be sold by local retailers in those countries.
Female workers from Bangladesh work in a garment factory on the outskirts of Gazipur Dhaka on February 17, 2018.
Mehedi Hasan | NurPhoto | Getty Images
About 4.1 million workers, mostly women, work in the sector. But they often work long hours under penalty conditions and earn very low wages.
“These are some of the most vulnerable workers in Bangladesh and in countries where there are clothing exports. Young workers, working women, (are) often internal migrants. So they are coming from the countryside to the city,” said Mark Anner, a professor for labor relations and employment at Penn State University, he told CNBC.
Bilkis Bigum, 30, lost her job as a garment factory worker on April 4 and has not found a job since. To make ends meet, she worked at a sick neighbor’s house as a domestic helper and initially relied on others for food aid.
She is now getting a temporary job, on the hour that connects her to about 200 heels to 300 heels, but it is not enough to pay the rent at the moment. Her brothers, who are working, sometimes help her out, but they have their families to take care of as well, Bigum said.
“Now I work here and there, at least that way I can make some money,” she told CNBC in Bengali.
Many of them have no savings and live from paycheck to paycheck, Anner explained. So when they lose their job, the impact is immediate.
“Sometimes their families return home depend on them, on domestic remittances that send money from the city home to their families. These are the most vulnerable workers, insecure in many different ways and they are paying the harshest price. for this crisis, “he added.
Anner published a report in March regarding the immediate impact of the pandemic on Bangladesh’s clothing sector. He said the report found that many brands were initially unwilling to pay suppliers for production costs and raw materials that had already been purchased. This forced many factories to close operations and lay off or lay off workers.
Reuters reported that while exports have been recovering in recent months, factory owners expect orders to fall by two-thirds and say retail buyers demanded price cuts of up to 15%.
Mousumi said she joined a new factory a little over a month ago that makes t-shirts and face masks.
Working hours often extend beyond the usual hour from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., she said, adding that she sometimes worked shifts that extended beyond midnight. “There is no fixed time of duty,” she said in Bengali. “There is a lot of pressure at work, so we are forced to work. They give extra time for every job we do after 5pm.”
The salary she attracts is less than what she earned at her previous factory, she said. She earns about 8,500 heels a month, about $ 100 and receives compensation for extra time on days when she works after 5 p.m.
“Less is less, but I’m not finding work anywhere else,” Mousumi said. “I have a lot of problems in my family, so I’m forced to do this job.”
Workers in the sector are not paid a living wage and often work in poor conditions, according to Thulsi Narayanasamy, head of labor rights at the UK’s Center for Business Resources and Human Rights.
“The minimum wage that exists in many Asian countries, including countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, does not cover the basic cost of living what we call a living wage for these workers,” she told CNBC by telephone.
“So many of them are in debt, they do not have enough to cover three meals a day or to cover the basic costs for them and their family. This is the foundation of exploiting the industry,” Narayanasamy said, adding that they work long hours. “too long” to fulfill orders with very short return time. This leads to a whole range of safety issues at the plant including fire hazards, she said, pointing to The fall of the clothing factory 2013 in Dhaka which killed more than 1,000 people.
Narayanasamy said the main cause for the many issues facing workers in the global apparel industry is the “deep energy imbalance between fashion brands and suppliers and factory workers”.
Since there are more suppliers than buyers, fashion brands, through their buying practices, determine how much they pay for orders and what kind of return time they give factories.
“Factories are unable to negotiate vigorously due to the large number of factories across the globe and the small number of fashion brands that monopolize the sector,” she said. “So what we end up looking at across the board, there is non-payment of living wage and this has been well documented for a long time.”
Penn State’s Anner said he is now studying what current and future orders from brands in the factory will look like at a time when global demand for clothing is low as countries remain in partial blockages and many people are required to work from house.
Ready-made garment workers work at a garment factory in Dhaka on July 25, 2020.
Ahmed Salahuddin | NurPhoto | Getty Images
“Large companies do not know how much they will sell in the coming months, they are not sure how to anticipate moving forward, so they often place orders but with much smaller volume than they would have this time around. year ago, “he said. The data showed that buyers were pushing the price much higher now than they did years ago, he added.
“This to me is a considerable concern because it is a double squeeze for suppliers and squeezes for suppliers always translate into a squeeze for workers,” he said.
For many workers, the pandemic has exacerbated their poverty and plunged them deeper into debt.
Mousumi said she cares for her mother and should send a monthly allowance to her father-in-law. She said she accumulated debts while unemployed between 2018 and 2020. After losing her last job in August, she also accumulated rent arrears.
“Financially, I was facing a lot of difficulties … so I had to get that job,” she said.
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