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For Bangladesh’s Beleaguered Garment Workers, a Glimmer of Hope

There’s hope for Bangladesh’s embattled garment industry yet.

Textile exports rebounded by nearly 50 percent as factories kicked into production to fulfill orders from predominantly Western brands and retailers, local officials reported Tuesday.

Shipments of ready-made clothes topped $3.3 billion, up from $2.3 billion a year earlier, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the South Asian nation’s largest trade group of garment factory owners.

Retail giants such as H&M, Primark and Walmart have reinstated garment orders that were previously canceled or put on pause in the early days of the pandemic, giving Bangladesh a much-needed shot in the arm amid the ongoing health crisis, BGMEA spokesman Khan Monirul Alam Shuvo told AFP.

The second-largest exporter of clothing after China, Bangladesh’s garment sector employs roughly 4 million people and accounts for 84 percent of the country’s export revenue. At least 1 million garment workers were laid off or furloughed because of scuppered production, according to the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University. Some factories now say, however, that they’re looking to hire thousands of workers to manage the recovering workflow.

As the outbreak progressed to a full-fledged pandemic in March, panicked brands and retailers, fearful of their own cratering bottom lines, invoked contractual force-majeure clauses to rescind $3.1 billion worth of garment orders from Bangladeshi suppliers, the BGMEA said. Shipments followed a similar trajectory, nosediving 83 percent in April—the same month the government initiated a nation-wide lockdown—and more than 50 percent in May, when factories reopened on a limited basis.

“Some 80 percent of those orders have since been reinstated,” Shuvo said. “Still, we have to wait another five months to see a clear picture.”

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While Covid-19 has battered apparel sales over the past few months, signs are emerging that consumers who had shifted dollars to essential items may be ready to shop for clothing again. According to William Blair & Company’s “Weekly Consumer Pulse,” roughly 30 percent of the consumers it polled bought clothing recently, nearly double the number in April.

Bangladesh’s Hannan Group, which exports clothing to brands such as Casamoda and Esprit, said it has enlisted nearly 1,600 workers in the past two months.

“I think the worst is over. Some retailers have placed new orders and revived some old orders,” ABM Shamsuddin, chairman of Hannan Group chairman, whose factories employ 12,000 people, told AFP. “ We need new workers to make the shipment deadline.”