More than 10,000 workers have been laid off by 407 garment factories in Dhaka, Gazipur, Chattogram, and Narayanganj districts
Two months ago, Ranu Akhter had a job at a garment factory in Gazipur, on the outskirts of Dhaka, and a plan to make the Eid-ul-Fitr special for her family.
The festival, this time, will surely be like no other before, amid a tragic turn of events. First, her employer Global Merchants Ltd told her that her services were no longer required from the first day of the Covid-19 shutdown beginning on March 26, and now her landlord has threatened to evict her family for failing to pay the rent.
"I am not going to get a job soon. If I am evicted, where will my family go? We do not even have a home in our village," Ranu said on May 18 in a telephone conversation.
She was among 27 workers laid off by the factory on March 25 – the very day the government announced the closure of all public and private organisations, until April 4, to slow the transmission of Covid-19. The shutdown for apparel factories was further extended until they got permission to reopen a month later.
However, those who had been laid off were not re-hired.
In the meantime, the government has announced a stimulus package of Tk5,000 crore for export-oriented businesses so that employers can pay salaries for April, May and June.
Later, the Bangladesh Bank said no company would benefit from the stimulus package if it purged workers during the shutdown that extended to May 30.
There is a catch to this. Eighteen-year-old Ranu was not officially dismissed.
"I was told by the admin section that there was no work, and therefore no pay, and that the company was unable to keep us," she said, with an indirect reference to the cancellation of work orders by foreign buyers.
Her misery is linked with the diminishing business in as far as Canada, Europe and Australia. Hard hit by the coronavirus, Canadian clothing company Groupe Dynamite, Just Group with stores in Australia and New Zealand and Italy's Prenatal, cancelled work orders to Global Merchants Ltd amounting to $232,737, according to data compiled by BGMEA.
Banesa Akhter, 20, another worker of the factory, said she had been forced to sign a blank paper on her last day of work.
The paper will be presented as a resignation letter when necessary, and such practice is commonplace among garment factories in: Dhaka, Gazipur, Chattogram, and Narayanganj, said Kauser Alam, monitoring and evaluation officer of the workers' rights organisation Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS).
It is also one way to evade the legal obligation of paying severance allowances, he said.
Representatives from Global Merchants did not receive phone calls or respond to SMSes.
Ranu and Banesa had their monthly wage for March in hand when they became jobless – as well as uncertainty that they would get another job as long as the pandemic had a foothold on the country.
More than 10,000 other Ranus or Banesas were laid off in a similar way by 407 garment factories in the four districts, according to data collected by the BCWS and two workers' federations.
"The majority of these workers had worked for the factories for less than a year and some did not even cross the probationary period of six months," said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the BCWS.
According to a tripartite memorandum, garment workers should get paid at the full-month rate for the days they worked and at a 65 percent rate for the remaining days of the month.
However, about 50 percent of the nearly 16,000 workers that the companies had before the shutdown have not received their salaries for April.
The industrial police say 7,198 workers have been laid off by 78 factories during the pandemic.
China Rahman, secretary general of the Bangladesh chapter of IndustriALL, a global union fighting for better working conditions, said the organisation was collecting data about workers laid off by factories.
"We will make a move with the information to mount pressure on the factory authorities and BGMEA [the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association]. If they do not listen to us, we will approach the government," she said.
Khan Monirul Alam Shuvo, chairman of BGMEA's Standing Committee on Media and Public Relations, said after the prime minister's order against job cuts, the association requested its members not to dismiss any worker before Eid – on humanitarian grounds.
"The garment entrepreneurs have not dumped their workers, rather it is the world-renowned billion-dollar worth brands that have not paid us for work done, or have cancelled orders, or even deferred payments and thrown us into uncertainty."
"We have not received any list from the unions of the laid-off workers. Instead, they are coming up with random numbers, and it is impossible for us to verify those numbers."
The BGMEA can investigate the matter and take necessary steps if it is given detailed information by the unions, Shuvo said.
Ranu and Banesa were not prepared for the economic shock of being made redundant. In fact, they had never been prepared because their wages were always lower than what they needed to make a living.
A new job always used to be possible in a sector that required a continued flow of workers – until the global epidemic crippled almost all economies. That led to a slump in the demand for: T-shirts, shirts, trousers, and other clothing items that Bangladeshi manufacturers supplied.
From her latest job in the garment industry, Ranu received Tk9,500. Her family was so poor in Kishoreganj that her parents bribed someone Tk2,000 to get Ranu her first job – as a helper, four years ago, when she did not meet the age criterion to enter the export-oriented labour market.
She bore the educational expenses of her school-going brothers and paid the rent while her father, a day labourer, took care of the rest.
With both of them now staying idle at home, the family of five members breaks fast with the bare-minimum in the evening.
"We are surviving on the sympathy of our relatives from the village. We cannot die of starvation. Can we?" Ranu said.