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Organizations Urge Covid-19 Protections for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka Workers

As the deadly delta wave continues to devastate parts of South Asia, more than 50 trade unions and labor-rights organizations are urging multinational brands, factory owners and lawmakers to take “immediate action” to protect the lives and livelihoods of garment workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In an open letter published Monday, organizations such as StandUp Movement Lanka, the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity and the Clean Clothes Campaign criticized the governments of both countries for exempting garment workers from lockdown measures for “economic reasons.” By classifying them as essential, the groups said, undervaccinated workers are being made to toil in crowded factories, under the threat of contagion, in order to complete orders for brands headquartered in countries with high vaccination rates.

Longstanding calls from campaigners for governments, factory management and brands to provide workers with adequate occupational safety and health protections or social programs that would allow them to stay home have also gone unheeded, the organizations said.

“The failure to prioritize worker health and safety forces workers to choose between going into a factory without access to necessary PPE, with inadequate social distancing, and with minimal testing and vaccination or to face financial ruin without income or social benefits,” they wrote. “It is untenable that Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi workers must choose between death and destitution.”

To curb the spread of the virus, the letter implores decision makers to include the garment industry in lockdowns, expand on-site vaccination and testing of workers, and ensure the implementation of International Labour Organization Occupational Safety and Health protection standards such as the provision of personal protective equipment, physical distancing and the right of removal from danger. It further asks that workers who must skip work due to new Covid-19 restrictions continue to receive their full salaries. Workers who voluntarily refuse unsafe work, too, must not be excluded from unemployment, severance or other economic rights and benefits.

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Brands, in particular, must extend lead times on orders during lockdowns to allow for reductions in workforce or temporary factory closures. Together with their suppliers, they must ensure that the people who make their clothes are able to do so safely and those who are prevented from coming to work are still paid in full, according to the letter.

“While this letter is focused on Bangladesh and Sri Lanka given the current immediate crisis, apparel brands need to do their due diligence by monitoring the safety and payment of workers during the pandemic in every country they source from, to ensure that workers do not have to risk their lives to complete brands’ orders,” the letter said.

“These steps are necessary actions that must be taken by international brands, national governments, and local factory managers to protect the lives and livelihoods of the workers whose labor they profit from,” it added.

Bangladesh, which has seen its number of Covid-19 cases double over the past month, has recorded 1.49 million infections and more than 26,000 deaths to date, though they appear to be on a downward trend. It exited its most recent lockdown on Aug. 11. Sri Lanka has been less fortunate, logging 4,600 new infections and 214 deaths from the contagion—its highest single-day death toll of the pandemic so far—on Friday, bringing its total to 426,000 cases and more than 8,770 deaths. The renewed surge has prompted the government to extend its lockdown by another week to Sept. 6.

Last week, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), Sri Lanka’s leading industry body, moved to reassure the nation’s 350,000 garment workers by issuing a five-point framework that places worker safety as its top priority. As of August, JAAF said, 90 percent of the workforce has received their first dose of the vaccine, and up to 50 percent have received their second. The aim is to vaccinate all garment workers by the end of September, and then their families, the organization added.

Other points in the scheme include enhancing backward integration, collaborating with authorities to retain and improve export market access through bilateral trade agreements, positioning Sri Lanka’s apparel industry “globally for the future” and improving the competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises in the sector.

With the pandemic taking an extended bite out of Sri Lanka’s biggest exporter, which accounts for roughly 7 percent of the country‘s $84 billion economy, all hands must be on deck, said JAAF secretary-general Tuli Cooray said.

“At this crucial juncture, the entire industry must collaborate if we are to effectively address challenges stemming from the pandemic and create conducive conditions for long-term growth of the sector,” Cooray added. “This five-point plan is a framework which all industry stakeholders can use to collaborate in achieving our shared vision for Sri Lanka.”