Bangladeshs garment sector employs more than 4m workers

Bangladesh's garment sector employs more than 4m workers

Bangladesh has ordered thousands of clothing factories to continue production throughout a 10-day countrywide lockdown in force since Thursday (26 March) aimed at slowing the spread of new coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

In a letter to the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) today (27 March), the state-run Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) – part of the ministry of labour and employment – said factories with ongoing purchase orders can continue operating so they can fulfil them. Plants that make personal protective gear, masks and other medical equipment can also stay open.

The DIFE said the owners of these factories must comply strictly with the health safety guidelines issued by the government on preventing the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace, including the government's Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agency.

"If any worker shows minimum symptoms of coronavirus infection, the owners will take necessary treatment facility alongside keeping him under quarantine," said the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by just-style.

A BGMEA leader confirmed this letter has been issued. "Those who have orders can keep their factories running," Faisal Samad, senior vice president of the BGMEA, told just-style. "But those who have no orders can suspend work temporarily," he said.

The nationwide shutdown will be enforced until 4 April with the help of the country's army and police as the south Asian country battles to arrest further transmission of the virus in this densely-populated country of 164m and 1,240 people per square kilometre.

In the meantime, all public transport has been were halted, including most air travel, with flights to London and Bangkok the only exceptions.

But the Chittagong port, which handles 90% of the country's export and import trade, remains in operation, with garment exporters facing no disruption in shipments or the import of inputs.

The partial lockdown comes as nearly 1,000 factories with as many as 1.96 million workers reported US$2.67bn in cancelled or suspended orders from retailers and brands who are facing falling sales and store closures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a BGMEA estimate. 

The president of the BGMEA has urged international apparel brands not to delay shipments or cancel orders, warning that to do so could result in factories failing to pay workers and subsequently create social unrest across the country.

As of 27 March, Bangladesh reported 48 confirmed Covid-19 cases with five fatalities, but public health experts say the number of infections would have been higher had the south Asian country conducted more tests of people with symptoms indicating they have caught the disease.

Earlier in the week Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a BDT50bn (US$590m) stimulus package to help export-oriented industries respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. The money will be used to pay worker  wages.

Bangladesh is the world's second largest exporter of ready-made garments after China, with the sector employing more than 4m workers, mostly women. The country generated US$34.13bn from readymade garment exports in the last fiscal year.

Its manufacturers have been vocal about the impact of falling orders from the global coronavirus crisis, calling for short-term financial support to keep the industry alive until this pandemic passes.