The workers are desperate for work despite being assured of lion’s share of their pay
Ajetun Bibi, 37, lives in a shabby 144 square feet room with her husband and three children in Outpara area of Gazipur.
She was not supposed to be at home in the late morning hours when The Business Standard met her. A day earlier, on 3 May, she went to work as the garment factories reopened after more than a month of shutdown.
The factory allowed every worker inside, but Ajetun and several hundred workers were kept waiting until 1pm, when factory authority asked them to go back to home and not to come until further notice.
The factory started operation with a portion of its workers. Ajetun and her co-workers returned without protesting, but this was not the case with thousand other workers at different factories.
The government has allowed the garment factories to start production with 50 percent workforce to ensure social distancing measures. This restriction has left many workers without work, who then staged demonstrations in front of a number of factories.
As the factories were closed for about a month, the government initially instructed RMG (readymade garments) owners to pay the workers 60 percent of their gross wages for April. Later on May 4, in a tripartite meeting among the labour leaders of IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC), RMG owners, and the government, it was raised to 65 percent.
This instruction failed to instill a sense of assurance in the workers. They agitated in Savar, Ashulia, Dhamrai, and Gazipur areas.
About 2,100 workers of Bando Fashion Ltd blocked Dhaka-Mymensingh highway at Board Bazar area in Gazipur at 10am demanding that all workers be allowed to work at the factory.
Industrial Police (Gazipur zone) Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Shusanto Sarker said the factory owner wants to run their operations with a portion of workers as per the health and safety guidelines to ensure workers' safety by maintaining social distance measures.
But workers demanded that all of them be allowed to work and started demonstrations.
The protesters then went in front of the Interstoff Garment Factory and asked the workers to join their demonstration.
However, the workers of the Interstoff Garment Factory did not join the protest. Agitated workers of the Bando Fashion Ltd started vandalising vehicles and the Interstoff Garment Factory.
Police charged batons, and fired around 22 rounds of tear gas and shotgun shells. The workers hurled stones and bricks at the law enforcers.
Traffic resumed on the highway after police brought the situation under control.
Besides, workers of two factories, EB Tex Dress Shirt Ltd, and Sun Cherry Body Fashion Manufacturing Ltd, have staged demonstrations for allowing them to work in Gazipur on Tuesday.
Desperate for work
The Business Standard found out why the workers are so desperate for work despite being assured of lion's share of their pay.
Ajetun Bibi has been working in the industry since 2001. She earns a monthly salary of 12,500 taka, which includes overtime. Her husband used to work in a small restaurant, which has been closed since the shutdown began.
Ajetun is now the only bread earner in the family with five mouths to feed, and a 3,400-taka house rent to pay at the end of every month.
Asked why workers are so desperate to join the work, Ajetun said they fear that they may remain out of work for an indefinite period of time, may not get paid, and factory owners may not take them back in the future.
"What if the company eventually fires us?" a worried Ajetun asked.
"What if they fire you?" we echoed. Ajetun Bibi fell silent, cloud shrouded her face. All her family's earnings all these years were spent for mere sustenance, with no savings in hand. Finding another job is hard.
All the workers The Business Standard talked with shared the same concern, that they might lose the job if the factory gates remained shut for them for a prolonged period.
Responding to queries, labour Leader Nazma Akhter demanded that the factory owner should pay the workers full wages. She also said that workers should get risk allowances, as the risk of coronavirus infection is high in the factories.
According to data from the industrial police, as of 6 May, workers of 170 garment and textile factories are yet to be paid their wages for March.
The export industry, about 85 percent of which is RMG, was the first to get a stimulus package from the government at the wake of covid-19 outbreak in Bangladesh.
'Huge overhead cost'
Why the RMG industry, which brought $34 billion in 2019, is looking so fragile since the first few weeks of the shutdown?
Rezaul Hoque Rumi, a management and compliance consultant working with several apparel companies explained it to The Business Standard.
He said that all the factories have a huge overhead cost. Manufacturing industry is substantially different from trading. When factories are not in production, they have to suffer a serious loss every day.
Regarding the Tk5,000 crore stimulus, Rezaul reminded that the owners will have to repay the loan with a service charge to the bank. With cancelled orders during the pandemic, and diminishing business over the last year, the industry is facing a hard time.
"Bangladesh ranks 168th out of 190 countries in the global ease of doing business index. Doing business is tough here," said Rezaul Hoque.
He added that the companies have to pay a hefty bribe to receive or renew licenses and certificates, increasing the operating cost. Profit margin in the industry is also very competitive.
According to Rezaul, orders are being diverted to Vietnam and other countries. He opined that Vietnam has showed their management capability in the ongoing pandemic with zero deaths from the disease so far.
Rezaul thinks this achievement might inspire the buyers to divert more orders towards that country.
"Manufacturers engaged in a desperate bid with respective buyers with a view to clearing their warehouse-full of raw material. Along with cancelled and withheld orders, garment manufacturers are facing discounted prices due to the delay," Rezaul said.
According to reports, RMG export saw a steep 84 percent fall in April compared to its corresponding month in 2019.