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Protesting Bangladesh Garment Workers: ‘Who Will Save Us From Starvation?’

Thousands of garment workers took to the streets of Bangladesh in protest over the weekend, saying they were more afraid of starvation due to unpaid wages than contracting COVID-19.

The South Asian country, the world’s second-largest apparel exporter after China, faces a crisis of epic proportions as panicked Western brands and retailers, rattled by imploding bottom lines due to closed storefronts, evaporated foot traffic and plummeting consumer confidence, have zeroed out orders, refused to pay for finished garments or demanded steep discounts.

Bangladesh’s $35 billion garment industry accounts for more than 80 percent of the nation’s export earnings, but as production grinds to a halt and factory doors shutter, millions of workers now find themselves unemployed with little to no social or financial recourse.

Already, at least 10,000 workers from 37 factories have lost their jobs, Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, told Reuters Tuesday. The number could be much higher, however.

Protesting workers, who shouted slogans such as “we want our wages” and “break the black hands of the owners” as they blocked roads, said many of their employers have not paid them after orders were canceled.

“We are afraid of the coronavirus. We heard a lot of people are dying of this disease,” protesting worker Sajedul Islam told AFP. “But we don’t have any choice. We are starving. If we stay at home, we may save ourselves from the virus. But who will save us from starvation?”

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Bangladesh went on lockdown mode on March 26, and factories will remain shut through at least April 25 to stem the spread of the contagion as the number of victims begins to climb. Public transportation is suspended. As of Wednesday morning, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country has risen to 1,231, with 50 deaths.

But although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently announced $590 million in loans for export-oriented factories to pay workers, the cash has yet to trickle down. It may not even be enough: Industry bodies estimate the country is poised to lose roughly $10 billion in export revenue as a result of canceled business this financial year.

“We have not been paid for two months. We are starving,” another protester, who gave her name as Brishti, told AFP. “If we don’t have food in our stomach, what’s the use of observing this lockdown?”

Some 5,500 workers protested on Monday, following the 20,000 who turned out on Sunday, police inspector Islam Hossain told AFP.

“Some workers broke doors and glasses of a factory. But they were largely peaceful,” he said, noting that no one was arrested.

Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, has repeatedly appealed with international buyers to take delivery of completed orders under existing payment terms or risk destroying the livelihoods of the people who make their clothes.

“We will have 4.1 million workers literally going hungry if we don’t all step up to our commitment to the welfare of the workers,” she said in a video in late March. “This is a call we all promised to take a long time ago.

“One thing is very clear: our foremost responsibility is towards our workers. We are a manufacturing country,” she added. “Our reality and your reality is totally different, but it is not a time to point out differences—it is a time through which we need to work together.”

Labor-rights advocates from the Clean Clothes Campaign released this week a set of demand upon brands, retailers, e-tailers and governments to mitigate the effects of the crisis on global garment supply chains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some brands and retailers, they said, have sought to get out of signed contracts—and evade their responsibilities—by invoking force majeure, but the legality of the approach is “often questionable.”

“They should respond positively to all demands from suppliers for extended production timelines,” the group said. “No delay sanctions must be applied to orders not fulfilled in time.”

The Clean Clothes Campaign also said all garment, footwear and logistics workers who were employed at the onset of the pandemic to be paid their legally mandated wages and benefits, including severance payments and arrears, using the “most efficient mechanisms” available in each country.

“Emergency relief funds and financial support packages specifically for the garment sector should be set up with contributions from [international financial institutions], donor governments as well as brands and retailers for this purpose,” it said.

Workers who stop working given COVID-19 risks must not be excluded from unemployment, severance or other economic rights and benefits during the crisis or be penalized with loss of contracts or work when the crisis subsides, the group added.

“It should be pro-actively announced that workers with COVID-19 symptoms may stay at home without risking to lose their job or (part of) their wage,” it said. “Where governments have introduced lock-down orders, suppliers should comply with local government measures and clearly communicate to workers, and respect that dismissals for workers’ ‘absenteeism’ during the lock-down is illegal.”

The Sustainable Textile of Asian Region (STAR) Network, a consortium of nine garment business associations from Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Vietnam, released a statement last week urging brands and retailers to “carefully consider all potential impacts” their purchasing decisions may have on workers and small businesses in their supply chains and to honor the terms of their contracts without renegotiating price or payment terms.

“During this unprecedented time of global outbreak of the COVID-19, responsible business has become more important than ever for the whole world to survive and recover from the crisis,” it said. “Especially, responsible purchasing practices of brand companies, retailers and traders of the global textile and apparel supply chains, will bring enormous impacts on the fundamental rights of millions of workers and the livelihood of their families in the supplier end.

“It is time for global businesses to uphold and honor their commitment to labor rights, social responsibility and sustainable supply chains,” it added.