Most of Bangladesh’s population will be confined to their homes for a week from Thursday as the South Asian country returns to a national “hard” lockdown amid a crushing wave of Covid-19 infections that brought on Monday its highest-ever death toll from the pandemic.
All non-essential services, barring the nation’s export-oriented factories, have been ordered to curtail or limit operations. Already, the government has halted nearly all public transport, prompting a mass exodus of migrant workers from the capital of Dhaka as they scramble to flee to their hometowns or risk getting stranded when the directive goes into effect.
Al Jazeera reporter Tanvir Chowdhury said he saw thousands of Dhaka residents, most of them working people and daily wage earners, “walking, taking scooters and even renting ambulances because there is no public transportation.”
Officials have blamed the highly contagious Delta variant, which first emerged in neighboring India and has since been identified in 85 countries, for the “dangerous and alarming” spike in cases following a decline in May. Authorities, which reported 119 deaths Monday, have officially logged nearly 900,000 positive cases and more than 14,000 deaths to date, although experts say the actual numbers could be higher.
The army will assist the police and border guard in enforcing the lockdown, State Minister for Public Administration Farhad Hossain told the media on Friday.
Because of a shortage of supplies, less than 3 percent of Bangladesh’s 163-million-strong population is fully vaccinated. The number is lower for the country’s 4.1 million garment workers, who are responsible for 80 percent of the nation’s exports.
A survey of 1,280 garment workers, conducted by the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling and Microfinance Opportunities at the end of April, found that a mere 2 percent of those employed in the industrial areas of Chittagong, Dhaka City, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Savar have been vaccinated.
The government has been prioritizing frontline workers, vulnerable groups and adults aged 40 years or older, which means that garment workers, who average between 22 and 25 years old do not qualify, said Miran Ali, managing director of Bitopi Group and Tarasima Apparels and vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
But cases among garment workers are low, according to the BGMEA, one of Bangladesh’s largest trade organizations.
“The government has informed the BGMEA that factories may continue to work maintaining the excellent Covid prevention practices that we have developed in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and the International Labour Organization,” Ali told Sourcing Journal.
Faruque Hassan, president of the BGMEA, told the Dhaka Tribune that shuttering garment factories would jeopardize the sector’s recovery, especially since it was starting to see an increase in work orders after a bruising year of cancelations and suspensions.
“It is beneficial to keep factories open rather than keeping them closed,” he said, calling the garment industry the “lifeline” of Bangladesh’s economy. “Moreover, the buyers may refuse to take half-finished orders if shipment is delayed,” he said. “In this case, if the buyers move to our competitive countries, it will be a serious blow to our sector.”
The BGMEA estimates that apparel exports will hit roughly $33.7 billion in the 2021-22 financial year, up 18.7 percent from $24.8 billion the year before, as the economies of the United States and European Union rebound from faster vaccine deployment.
Union leaders were more ambivalent about the sector’s reprieve from restrictions, with Nazma Akter, president of the Sammilito Garment Sramik Federation, questioning why factories weren’t following the lead of the rest of the country, particularly when workers struggled to get to work the last time ferries, trains and buses ground to a halt.
Worker concerns have been continually subsumed by business interests, she told the Dhaka Tribune, noting that the “demands of the workers did not get priority during the lockdown [and] the factory owners did not manage safe workplaces and safe transportation,” contrary to government orders.
But Sirajul Islam Rony, a representative of garment workers at the last minimum wage board, said many workers commuted to work on foot and on small vehicles such as “easy bikes” in the absence of public transportation. With Eid-al-Adha, a major Islamic holiday, fast approaching, he told the Dhaka Tribune, workers will need both wages and festival allowances, which factory owners would be hard-pressed to provide if they couldn’t produce goods on time.
Mostafiz Uddin, managing director of Denim Expert, also pointed to wages and Eid bonuses as a reason factories should stay open. “Moreover, factory owners have also to pay their local suppliers’ dues,” he told Sourcing Journal. “So, at this moment the factories could not absorb any lockdown.”
Pausing production lines could also increase the risk of infections countrywide by giving migrants from outside Dhaka little incentive to stay behind, “whereas this situation can be avoided by keeping the factories open [and] maintaining health and safety protocols,” Uddin said.
Certainly, there are no easy answers to how drastic measures should be. The Consumers Association of Bangladesh reported on Sunday that the incomes of 77 percent of Bangladeshis have declined during the pandemic, even as the prices of basic commodities and the cost of some public services have risen. In April, the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies and Centre for Policy Dialogue estimated that the health crisis wiped out 3 percent of jobs in the nation, creating 16.38 million “new poor.”
Of the aid that European Union governments extended to Bangladesh last year, just $640,476 has been doled out to 6,031 beneficiaries—each of whom received three payments of roughly $36—as of mid-April, according to a recent International Labour Organization Call to Action update.
“So I think the government took a prudent decision to balance between lives versus livelihoods,” Uddin said. “Who will support [the garment workers] if the factories are shut down? Remember poverty is a killer too and many people may die from poverty than Covid-19 if the factories fail to operate.”