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BGMEA Refutes Bangladesh Police Reports of Brewing Labor Unrest

As tensions in Bangladesh escalate over unpaid wages and festival allowances ahead of a prominent Islamic holiday, local law enforcement has flagged nearly 800 industrial units—including hundreds of readymade garment (RMG) and textile factories—where fomenting labor unrest is threatening to boil over.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), however, says it’s expecting no such unrest.

The industrial police, a specialized Bangladeshi police unit that patrols the nation’s industrial zones singled out 514 RMG and textile facilities, 382 of which are members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and 40 of which come under the auspices of the Bangladesh Textile Mills Association.

Broken down by geography, 32 factories in the Ashulia Zone, 68 in the Chattogram Zone, 342 in the Gazipur Zone, 14 in the Mymensingh Zone and 58 in the Narayanganj Zone face mounting strife due to the economic pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has trickled down in the form of overdue pay and a dearth of festival allowances before Eid al-Adha, which begins July 30.

The BGMEA, Bangladesh’s largest trade union of garment factory owners, told New Age Bangladesh, however, that just under half of the industrial police’s assessment of its membership—177—struggled with payments due to vaporized work orders, throttled cash flows and lack of financing. To date, the BGMEA estimates that Western brands and retailers have canceled more than $3 billion in production orders—the equivalent of 982 garments—after panicking over their bottom lines at the onset of the pandemic, which is showing signs of resurgence as it continues to flare up in parts of the United States, Europe and the Asia Pacific.

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BGMEA president Rubana Huq told Sourcing Journal Wednesday that there may be inaccuracies in the report and that they foresee no unrest among garment workers.

“BGMEA has been in touch with the industrial police and has approached them for correcting the record because it is not matching to the official figures,” she said. “This is a sector that employs 4.1 million people, so 4,000 things can go wrong…but that should not define the whole garment sector…We do not see any such fear of any kind of labor unrest prior to Eid or post-Eid at all.”

A BGMEA spokesperson told New Age Bangladesh that it was monitoring these at-risk factories so “no untoward situation [takes] place.” It had previously predicted that the country, the second-largest exporter of clothing after China, will face a $5 billion “irrecoverable loss” because of COVID-19-induced forces, including a global slowdown that McKinsey & Company expects to take a 27 percent to 30 percent bite out of apparel and footwear revenues in 2020.

Industrial police data also revealed that workers’ wages for June remained unpaid in 1,647 of the RMG and textile factories under its jurisdiction as of July 15. The BGMEA itself has only listed the wage payment status of 1,926 of its 4,000 members. Of these, 1,465 factories paid June wages to their workers as of July 15.

The coronavirus has been nothing short of catastrophic for Bangladesh, where garments make up 84 percent of the country’s total exports. Despite promises of financial relief from several quarters, millions of workers face ruin and starvation as uncertainty weighs heavily over the future of the nation. Some 1.8 million workers are likely to never recover their jobs, experts say. Workers have also voiced concerns that factory owners are taking advantage of the crisis to illegally expel union members and avoid paying maternity benefits under the guise of cost cutting.

“[The pandemic] is the chance for manufacturers to handpick the workers they want to kick out of the industry‚ the ones with a voice, the ones who are trying to organize,” Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity, told the Guardian earlier this month.