Bangladesh lost US$4.6bn in exports during the three months from March to May

Bangladesh lost US$4.6bn in exports during the three months from March to May

A survey of ready-made garment workers in Bangladesh has found that while many are still feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been improvements in some areas such as wage payments and virus prevention.  

The rapid response survey was carried out by the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies, UC Berkeley in collaboration with the James P Grant School of Public Health (BRAC JPGSPH) and the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED) at BRAC University in Bangladesh. Between 30 June and 13 July 2020, they reached 1,057 garment workers who participated in a phone survey of about 35 minutes.

Among the key findings:

  • 82% of workers said the income they had in April/May 2020 was less than the income in February 2020. However, by May, salaries had returned to their original levels or higher.
  • 87% of those surveyed in June-July said their most recent payments had been on time, and 73% were paid through mobile banking. "We don't know, however, if the workers we interviewed received the entire amount of their salaries or partial wages," the researchers say.
  • At the time of the survey, 52% of respondents said that they saved less than what they saved in February, the pre-Covid-19 period.
  • 77% said it was difficult to feed everyone in their household (80% of women and 72% of men).
  • 69% of workers ate less meat, fish and eggs from May to February, but 40% ate more pulses (lentils, chickpeas, etc), and 74% ate about the same amount of rice and wheat in the same period.
  • When asked how they have coped during this period, 60% of workers (65% women and 55% men) said they don't save or use their savings to pay for food; 92% (90% of women and 96% of men) said they reduce other expenses.
  • 87% said their factory has introduced new precautions against the coronavirus. However 59% still feel that they are somewhat likely or very likely to get infected by the virus while at work.
  • 54% of women and 45% of men would not be able to isolate at home if they contracted the virus.

Bangladesh is the world's second-largest garment exporter after China, with the industry accounting for 82% of the country's exports and 11% of its GDP.

Based on export earning data from Bangladesh Bank, US$4.6bn was lost during the three months from March to May as western brands and retailers cancelled or postponed orders and payments. But this gap had almost vanished by June, "demonstrating hope for a recovery of the sector" the researchers say. 

"It is extremely critical, now more than ever, to engage in rigorous social science research to understand the impacts of Covid-19 throughout the world," explains Dr Sanchita Saxena, social scientist and director of the Chowdhury Center.

"In Bangladesh, while the pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable communities, it has been particularly detrimental for the women who work at the very bottom of global supply chains in the nation's many garment factories." 

In its conclusions, the research brief notes that while the garment industry in Bangladesh has been successful for the country's economic growth, for the industry to continue to flourish and for workers to be treated with dignity, "we need a system where workers have a safety net, adequate wages, and job security. These are all necessary for workers' livelihoods during normal times, but even more critical during times of extreme economic crisis and hardship, like under this current pandemic." 

As results from the survey demonstrate, "it is difficult to mitigate a crisis by living hand to mouth (with inadequate nutritional intake), reducing other potential critical expenses, and exhausting limited savings. All these actions place workers in an extremely unhealthy and vulnerable position."

Recommendations include:

  • Continued discussion around the adequacy of current wages. "If the current wage rate is not enough to accumulate savings or meet the recommended caloric intake then we need to revisit the idea about a minimum wage versus a living wage."
  • There needs to be more opportunity for mobility between various positions in the factory, particularly women, to help them escape a cycle of poverty.
  • Worker committees have been helpful in disseminating information and educating workers about preventative measures, but "should not be considered a substitute for worker organising."
  • The government of Bangladesh needs to establish and maintain minimum standards for social protection using International Labour Organization (ILO) standards in the area of unemployment, employment injury, and medical insurance.

To read the research in full, click on the following link: 'The impact of Covid-19 on the lives of workers in the Bangladesh garment industry.'