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In Locked-Down Bangladesh, Garment Workers Struggle to Reach Factories

Many garment workers in Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka have to walk long distances or pay several times their usual fares to get to work after the country’s latest effort to curb rising Covid-19 infections caused all public transportation, including trains, buses and ferries, to grind to a halt, local media has reported.

Though Bangladeshi authorities have exempted the garment industry—the world’s second-largest exporter of clothing after China—from the current weeklong lockdown, which started Wednesday, many of the nation’s 4.1 million garment workers say the failure of factory bosses to provide private transportation has left them high and dry. Some workers said they walked for hours before reaching their facilities. Others, who used rickshaws, human haulers or other vehicles, said they were forced to shell out far more than they were used to.

Almost all the factories were running in Ashulia, Savar and Gazipur “as usual,” Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, told the Daily Star.

Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, told the Dhaka Tribune that at least 20 percent of workers at any given factory rely on public transportation to get to work.

“They are forced to go to work on foot to save their jobs,” he said. “The government instructed factories to arrange transportation for their workers using their own resources, but not a single factory followed that instruction.”

On Monday, Faruque Hassan, the newly elected president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country’s largest trade group for garment factory owners, said that most workers won’t need dedicated vehicles because they live in the vicinity of their respective factories.

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“Most of the factories have their own transport system for workers who live far away from factories,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. “Hence, the garment owners do not need to worry about carrying workers.”

The sentiment was echoed by Mohammad Hatem, vice-president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers Association, who said that garment workers are “traditionally used to coming to their factories on foot, so the directive is nothing new, even during lockdown.”

But Ruhul Amin, president of the Bangladesh Federation of Workers Solidarity, said the lack of transportation will unnecessarily burden workers who live more than three miles away from their facilities. At the same time, those who walk and cannot properly enforce social distancing face an increased risk of contracting the contagion.

“If any worker gets infected, the whole factory will be at risk,” Amin said. “Moreover, the responsibility will fall on the workers if they cannot reach the factories on time. Thus, we cannot accept the decision in any way.”

“There were no arrangements for buses and we didn’t see any major improvement in the hygiene protocols,” Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity union, told the Thompson Reuters Foundation. “It’s the same as it was before lockdown.”

Hassan told the Daily Star that the BGMEA is monitoring factories so they stagger worker entries and exits.

Bangladesh’s government ordered all offices and shops to shutter for eight days following a record-breaking spate of Covid-19 cases. The country is recording almost 50 percent more deaths per day than its previous peak in June 2020, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Friday, adding that a “humanitarian calamity” is engulfing South Asia as more than 200,000 people are infected in the region every day.

The first day of lockdown was Pohela Boishakh, a government holiday, so the streets were mostly clear. Traffic surged Thursday, however, as a tide of apparel workers started off for work, in groups and on foot, as early as 6:30 a.m, the Dhaka Tribune described.

Md Nasir Uddin Ahmed, inspector general of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments told the Daily Star that all inspectors in the country’s garment-producing districts are monitoring the situation. At least one factory in Bhaluka that did not provide transportation for workers was cautioned, he said.

“The factory managements have been asked to follow the health guidelines strictly. Otherwise, they will face actions,” he added. “So far, no infections and major untoward incidents were noticed.”