Hundreds of garment factories in Bangladesh have reopened this week in opposition of a nationwide lockdown that was supposed to continue until May 5, prompting fresh fears of an increase in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
At least 600 factories in the capital of Dhaka threw open their doors Monday, with another 856 to follow “soon,” according to Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), who told the Associated Press that she was under pressure to bring factories back online after canceled and suspended orders surged past $3 billion, affecting more than 2 million workers.
Huq had previously told Sourcing Journal that any reopening would “definitely not” happen this month, though she had admitted that the virus is unpredictable.
The move—which followed a false start earlier this month, when thousands of workers rushed back to their jobs from all corners of the country, only to be turned away at locked factory gates—includes some caveats: It only pertains to workers who are already within Dhaka. The trade group advises employees outside the city to refrain from going back to work, with the assurance that “they need not be scared about their loss of livelihood.”
The BGMEA also has issued guidelines to employers to “counsel and encourage full disclosure” from workers who experience symptoms or may have been in close contact with someone exhibiting symptoms.
“We will have to fight COVID-19 with both courage and caution,” the BGMEA said.
Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal noted in a meeting to reporters and stakeholders Tuesday that factories will only be operating on a “limited scale.” Efforts are being made to prevent workers from coming from outside Dhaka, and the “government is taking necessary measures so that workers don’t leave Dhaka again during Eid.”
On Tuesday, the International Labour Organization appealed to the Bangladesh government to employ protective measures, coupled with active input from employers’ and workers’ organizations, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
All employers should carry out risk assessments to ensure their workplaces meet strict occupational safety and health criteria to minimize workers’ risk of exposure to the contagion, the ILO said.
“The first step is the adoption of several safety and health measures at work based on dialogue between employers and workers, and a shared understanding of coronavirus risks,” Tuomo Poutiainen, Bangladesh country director for the ILO, said in a statement.
Still, the reopening of factories comes just as Bangladesh is dealing with its highest number of new cases—549 on Tuesday, according to the Directorate General of Health Services—in a single day since it confirmed its first infection on March 8. This brings the country of 160 million to more than 7,100 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 163 reported deaths.
As the world’s second-largest exporter of clothing after China, Bangladesh normally employs roughly 4 million workers and earns $35 billion annually by shipping clothing mainly to the United States and Europe. But the cash-flow crunch from the pandemic has resulted in a slew of canceled and unpaid orders from retailers such as Asos, Topshop owner Arcadia Group, Walmart-owned Asda, C&A and Sears, leaving already squeezed factories and workers in even more dire straits.
Industry bodies like the BGMEA estimate the country is poised to lose roughly $10 billion in export revenue due to canceled business this financial year.