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Labor Groups Refute Safety of Bangladesh’s Reopened Garment Factories

Labor advocates are questioning if Bangladesh’s garment sector, which employs 4 million workers, is lifting restrictions too soon.

More than 1,750 factories in Bangladesh have come back online despite the nationwide lockdown, which on Wednesday was extended to May 30 following reports of 19 coronavirus-related fatalities, the country’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths in a single day.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the country’s largest trade group for garment factory owners, says its inspectors have found reopened factories by and large satisfactory, but union leaders warn that many factories are failing to follow safety measures meant to protect workers from the spread of the contagion.

“Only 20 percent of the factories are maintaining social distancing and that’s because they are big factories and they have the space,” Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, told Reuters Thursday. “The rest are focusing on the other aspects of the health guidelines such as providing soap or measuring the temperature of workers before they enter. On the whole, the situation needs to improve a lot more.”

At least 100 factories have struggled to maintain social distancing, particularly when workers enter and leave the premises, according to Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, a union representing more than 100,000 workers.

“There may be 20 lines of workers. Five of these lines probably do maintain social distancing, but the rest aren’t able to do that,” Nahidul Hasan Nayan, the organization’s general secretary, told Reuters. “It is especially tough for small factories.”

Since the outbreak began in January, Bangladesh has officially clocked 18,863 positive cases and 283 deaths. Under dispute, however, is the number of garment workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 since factories began opening on a limited scale on April 25.

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The industrial police, a specialized unit of the Bangladesh police force that patrols industrial zones, say at least 50 workers from 37 garment factories have been infected with the virus, while the BGMEA in a May 12 report pegged the number at 55. Labor unions such as Shramik Sanghati Andolon, however, say it’s over 100.

“We went through the media reports and found that more than 100 workers have been infected with COVID-19 until now,” Taslima Akhter, president of Shramik Sanghati Andolon, told “But the authorities raised questions on the authenticity of our findings without even going through it. The chances of infection have gone up manifold now that the factories are running again.”

The BGMEA recently announced it was appointing technicians in its Ashulia Health Centre to collect samples and conduct COVID-19 tests for factory officials. This week, it inked an agreement with digital health system Maya to provide garment workers with free SMS-messaging- and video-call-based access to doctors and mental health counselors.

Factories with humming production lines are working on completing orders they received before the outbreak began. At least 25 percent of BGMEA’s 2,274 members have not been able to reopen because of evaporated work orders, and the factories that have resumed are running with just 60 percent to 70 percent of their workforce. Many factories worry they’ll be left without work after mid-June, owners told

Meanwhile, thousands of workers in Dhaka city, Ashulia, Gazipur, Narayangonj and Chattogram staged demonstrations on Tuesday demanding full wages for April and outstanding dues from March. Protesters have previously said they are more afraid of starvation due to unpaid wages—brought about, in part, from the rash of canceled orders in the wake of the pandemic—than of contracting COVID-19.

Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of clothing after China. Its $30 billion clothing sector accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings, but the pandemic has resulted in more than $3 billion in canceled orders, according to the BGMEA.