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From Bangladesh to Myanmar, Outbreak Sows Chaos for Garment Workers

Chaos and confusion reigned across Bangladesh over the weekend as thousands of garment workers hurried back to their jobs, expecting to resume production, only to discover factories remained shut due to canceled Western orders amid the growing coronavirus crisis.

Despite the Bangladesh government’s extension of the nationwide shutdown to April 14, workers said their employers asked them to return on April 5, in some cases issuing threats if they failed to show up. With the suspension of public transport, masses of people thronged the roads to Dhaka as they traveled by foot, boat, motorcycle or in packed trucks in apparent violation of social-distancing protocols.

Most workers were met at factory gates by police who told them to go home; many were informed that they were laid off or that the factory would continue only after the shutdown, according to Khadiza Akter, vice president of the union Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.

“They didn’t have to come back,” Akter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They could have been told on the phone about the factory closures.” Mismanagement, she added, had put thousands of workers’ lives needlessly at risk.

Babul Rahman, a garment worker who traveled 95 miles to his factory by foot and autorickshaw, was told on Sunday that he no longer had a job.

“I had to spend thrice as much money to come to Dhaka because buses are closed due to the shutdown,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Everything is more expensive because of the coronavirus as it is, and now if my salary decreases, I don’t know how I will survive.”

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Masuda Akhter, another worker, said she walked 30 miles back to work from Narsingdi in central Bangladesh after receiving a call from a factory supervisor on Saturday. “Now, my legs have swelled up,” she told the Dhaka Tribune. “The factory is closed, where should we go now? They must provide us with transport to go back home as there is no point of calling us and making us go back like this.”

The country’s Ministry of Labour and Employment has asked garment factory owners not to fire workers and extend to them their full wages for March by April 12.

“We know that there have been some issues, but we are hopeful that the owners will accept our request,” said Shib Nath Roy, a ministry spokesman.

On Saturday night, Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a trade organization, called on all factory owners to keep their units closed until April 11 to help stem the spread of infection. It’s a turnaround from two weeks ago, when she said that factories were exempt from the government-mandated lockdown, and that employers could “use their own discretion.”

Huq also assured workers that they will not lose their jobs if they stayed home.

“If a worker is absent from work, he or she will not lose their jobs in consideration of the situation,” she said in an audio message to the media. “I earnestly request that all owners look at this from the view point of humanity. I believe owners in the sector, which contributes a lot to the economy, will not take away jobs because of their absence.”

Workers, too, should expect to be paid for the month of March.

“There is no scope for unwillingness or hesitation in paying apparel workers, wages for the month of March, and we, of course, will pay it in time,” she added.

The Daily Star reports, however, that roughly one hundred garment factories in Savar and the Ashulia area of Gazipur have reopened despite the scant orders that remain. Workers were entering factories, the publication said, without maintaining their physical distance, raising health concerns. BGMEA spokesman Monsur Ahmed told the media, however, that at least some factories were producing Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers.

The second-largest garment exporter after China, Bangladesh’s $30 billion clothing sector employs 4 million people and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings. But industry bodies estimate that the country is poised to lose roughly $6 billion in export revenue as a result of canceled business this financial year.

Bangladesh reported on Monday 29 new coronavirus patients and four new deaths, raising its total number of confirmed cases to 117 and fatalities to 13.

To the east, Myanmar’s garment industry is also facing strife as nearly 1,500 workers across four factories in the Yangon region collectively demanded that owners temporarily close down the units and provide them paid leave for the duration of the pandemic, according to labor union leaders.

Previously, more than than 20,000 of the country’s workers lost their jobs after a slew of factories shuttered because of raw-material shortages.

“Their demands are to temporarily shut down all four factories during April while paying wages and salaries to workers for the whole month and give them other rights guaranteed by law,” Thet Htar Swe, a leader from the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma, told Radio Free Asia. “Our federation stands with the protesting workers and will help them succeed in securing their rights.”

Myanmar’s textile industry, which employs more than 450,000 people, generates more than $2 billion in annual exports and is the nation’s top export earner after gas and oil. It reported its first COVID-19-related death less than a week ago.

In the meantime, South Korean and Chinese stakeholders in Myanmar have urged the Myanmar government to review the possibility of providing a stimulus package for foreign investors of its garment industry at a time when the supply of raw materials has stalled and orders from the West have dried up.

“Given the magnitude of the suffering, the Myanmar government should proactively consider an incentive and stimulus package [for foreign garment businesses] as far as they can,” South Korean Ambassador to Myanmar Lee Sang-hwa told The Myanmar Times.