A Bangladeshi worker works at a garment factory in the Gazipur suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 6, 2020.
Mehedi Hasan | NurPhoto | Getty Images
SINGAPORE – The coronavirus outbreak has left Bangladesh’s garment industry in shock – and thousands of factory workers have suffered the most as their livelihoods have been brutally taken away.
The apparel industry has long been the lifeline of the economy, but as the pandemic ravaged the world, billions of dollars in orders were canceled as global retailers shut down and brands held back orders .
Before the outbreak began, Mousumi, 22, who refused to give her last name, started a new job at a garment factory in January after being unemployed since 2018. She was earning around 10,000 Bangladeshi taka. ($ 118) each month until March, when factories across the country were closed in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
When factories reopened with limited capacity in April, Mousumi said she was put on hold for three months. Then, on August 1, she said she had been fired.
“They were only saying one thing: that they fire people because of the coronavirus,” Mousumi said, according to CNBC’s translation of his words into Bengali.
Dulali, also 22, lost her job at ABA Fashions Limited in April, where she was making up to 11,000 taka a month by paying overtime. Since then, she has struggled to find a job. Like Mousumi, he was also told the pandemic was to blame.
“They said because of the coronavirus there were no new orders coming and the factory owner was struggling to pay workers,” Dulali said, according to CNBC’s translation of his spoken in Bengali. She said her job search was unsuccessful and many others like her were also looking for work.
Dulali lives with his eight year old daughter. “We are going through a lot of difficulties right now,” she told CNBC. She said they owed around 16,000 taka in rent. They are now scratching with her earnings of around 500 taka per month as a cook at her owner’s – a fraction of the salary she previously earned.
CNBC spoke by phone with six workers, including Mousumi and Dulali, through the Bangladesh Garment Workers Independent Union Federation, which works with various unions. Some of them have a job, while others say they have been looking for work since April or May.
All spoke of the financial hardships they face, including the potential misery, exacerbated by the crippling impact of the pandemic.
As the virus spread, many major retail brands canceled orders already in production. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) estimated that the pandemic had an immediate impact on 1,150 factories which reported order cancellations worth $ 3.18 billion. Between March and June of this year, Bangladesh lost $ 4.9 billion in clothing compared to the same period in 2019, according to BGMEA.
BGMEA told CNBC that in the past three to four months, its member factories have reported 71,000 workers were made redundant. A spokesperson said most factories have laid off workers who had been employed for less than a year.
“Vulnerable” and “precarious”
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest exporter of clothing – behind only China, according to rating agency Moody’s.
The clothing industry is a major source of export income for the country. Made-up clothing accounted for 83% of Bangladesh’s total exports worth $ 33.67 billion in its 2019-20 fiscal year, according to data released by BGMEA.
More than 4,600 garment factories in Bangladesh manufacture shirts, T-shirts, jackets, sweaters and pants. The clothes are mainly shipped to Europe, the United States and Canada, for sale by local retailers in those countries.
Bangladeshi women workers work at a garment factory in the Gazipur suburb of Dhaka on February 17, 2018.
Mehedi Hasan | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Some 4.1 million workers – mostly women – work in the sector. But they often work long hours in arduous 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, women workers, (are) often internal migrants. So they’re coming from the countryside to the city, ”Mark Anner, professor of labor and employment relations at Penn State University, told CNBC.
Bilkis Bigum, 30, lost her job as a garment factory worker on April 4 and has not found work since. To fend for herself, she worked at a sick neighbor’s house as a domestic helper and initially relied on others for food.
She now takes temporary hourly work that earns her around 200 taka to 300 taka – but that is not enough to pay rent at the moment. Her brothers, who work, sometimes help her, but they also have to take care of their own families, Bigum said.
“Now I work here and there, at least that way I can make money,” she told CNBC in Bengali.
Many of them have no savings and live paycheck to paycheque, Anner explained. So when they lose their jobs, the impact is immediate.
“Sometimes their families in their country depend on them, internal remittances – they send money from the city to their families. They are the most vulnerable workers, precarious in many ways and they are paying the hardest price for this crisis, “he added.
Anner released a report in March on the immediate impact of the pandemic on the garment industry in Bangladesh. He said the report found that many brands were initially unwilling to pay suppliers for production costs and raw materials already purchased. This has forced many factories to shut down and put workers on leave or fire.
Reuters reported that while exports have shown a recovery in recent months, Factory owners expect orders to be cut by two-thirds, and say retail buyers have been asking for up to 15% price reduction.
Poor working conditions
Mousumi said he joined a new factory just over a month ago that manufactures t-shirts and face masks.
Hours of work often extend beyond the usual 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., she said, adding that she sometimes worked shifts that stretched beyond midnight. “There are no fixed hours of service,” she said in Bengali. “There is a lot of pressure at work so we are forced to work. They give overtime for any work we do after 5 pm”
The salary she receives is lower than what she earned at her old factory, she said. She earns around 8,500 taka per month, around $ 100, and receives overtime compensation on days when she works beyond 5 p.m.
“It’s less but I can’t find a job elsewhere,” Mousumi said. “I have a lot of problems in my family, so I have to do this job.”
Workers in the sector do not receive a living wage and often work in poor conditions, according to Thulsi Narayanasamy, labor rights manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Center in the UK.
“The minimum wage that exists in many Asian countries, including places like Bangladesh and Cambodia, does not cover the basic costs of living – what we call a living wage – for these workers,” he said. she told CNBC over the phone.
“So a lot of them are in debt, they don’t have enough to cover three meals a day or to cover basic costs for themselves and their families. It is the lifeblood of operating the industry.” Narayanasamy said, adding that they are working “insanely long” hours to process orders with very tight turnaround times. This leads to a whole host of safety issues at the factory, including the risk of fire, she said, highlighting the 2013 garment factory collapse in Dhaka that killed more than 1,000. people.
Brands hold the power
Narayanasamy said the root cause of the many problems facing workers in the global garment industry is the “deep power imbalance between fashion brands and factory suppliers and workers.”
Since there are more suppliers than buyers, fashion brands, through their purchasing practices, determine how much they pay for orders and what kind of lead time they give factories.
“The factories are unable to negotiate strongly due to the large number of factories in the world and the small number of fashion brands which monopolize the sector,” she said. “So what we end up seeing across the board is that there is non-payment of a living wage – and this has been well documented for a long time.”
Anner, of Penn State, said he is currently researching what brands’ current and future orders to factories would look like at a time when global demand for clothing is weak, countries remain in partial lockdown and many people are urged to work from home.
Ready-to-wear workers work in a clothing factory in Dhaka on July 25, 2020.
Ahmed Salahuddin | NurPhoto | Getty Images
“Big companies don’t know how much they’re going to sell in the coming months, they’re not sure how to forecast the future, so they often place orders – but at a much lower volume than they would have. this time. a year ago, ”he said. The data indicates that buyers are lowering prices much more now than they were years ago, he added.
“This is a huge concern for me because it’s double pressure on suppliers and pressure on suppliers always translates into pressure on workers,” he said.
For many workers, the pandemic has exacerbated their poverty and pushed them into further debt.
Mousumi said that she takes care of her mother and that she has to send a monthly allowance to her in-laws. She said she racked up debt while unemployed between 2018 and 2020. After losing her last job in August, she also racked up rents.
“Financially I was facing a lot of difficulties… so I had to take this job,” she said.