There has been an unprecedented surge of information on the coronavirus of late. By now most of us have been saturated with knowledge on various aspects of the ongoing menace from so many different perspectives.
Ultimately, Covid-19 also did creep into Bangladesh, and we have had to go into lockdown, self-isolation, or quarantine of some sort.
There had been a lot of talks regarding the ramifications of Covid-19 on RMG, our main source of export earnings. To face the calamity and reduce the vulnerabilities, first, we shut down our educational institutions following the government’s decision.
We also closed down most of our offices, business, and shopping places. Regarding RMG factories, we were in a dilemma on how to handle the situation. We have almost 41 million-plus workers in various locations centering Dhaka, Savar, Gazipur, Narayngonj, and some in Chottogram.
There were some schools of thought which said that we shall take all precautions regarding workers’ safety and shall continue to work since we could ill afford such a big blow to our economy by shutting them down.
BGMEA officials had a discussion with the government officials and decided that the garment workers will be allowed to continue their job as usual.
There was a tripartite decision by the workers’ union, government officials, and factory owners at Sromo Bhaban chaired by a state minister. This was done on March 21.
The government very appropriately came up with a stimulus for export-oriented enterprises. On March 25, the honourable prime minister declared a Tk5,000 crore incentive package which has been applauded by many as a very timely, forward-thinking, and pragmatic step at this juncture.
Following this, there were specific guidelines given by Bangladesh Bank regarding how this will be actually dished out. This meticulous instruction even went into other relevant details that the payment to individual workers will be made according to his or her last three months’ average takeaway.
The elaborate guidelines have been formulated to ensure that this amount would reach individual workers and employees in their own bank accounts or through other existing systems of transactions available. This shows how much the government and the concerned business organizations really care for our RMG workers.
When it came to the closure of factories, we learned that BGMEA does not have the authority of such a decision, which actually lies with the government body known as the Department of Inspection of Factories and Establishments (DIFE). The decision of closure was not taken by DIFE even as late as April 1.
BGMEA, BKMEA, and DIFE meeting on April 4 decided that factories could run if the safety of workers could be maintained. Following this, some 190 factories opened on April 5. The government’s decision of extension of holidays till April 11 was declared on April 5. Factory owners failed to notify workers of the government extension of holidays. Finally, on Monday, April 6, BGMEA asked garments to remain closed till April 14.
Production units of garment factories were allowed to be kept open with adequate safety measures against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Rubabna Huq, president of BGMEA, was quoted saying that safety measures to protect workers from coronavirus had been strengthened. Following this, government declared holidays from March 26 till April 4, a bulk of the garments industries were closed, and workers found it difficult to reach home as transportation had already stopped by then.
So they somehow made it to their homes braving a lot of misery. They again had to head towards the capital, risking their lives as they had to be concerned about losing their jobs more than anything else.
So, on two occasions, we saw big movements of helpless lots on our highways withstanding all its misery.
If we analyze the efforts highlighted by our government and other relevant bodies involved to take care of RMG workers’ wellbeing vis-a-vis the tremendous hardship suffered by the hundreds of thousands of workers on their way home and back again amidst the ongoing holiday and lockdown, it is very clear that a chaotic condition has been created as a result of some decisions, or lack thereof.
Reasons could be a sense of complacency that, ensuring some safety measures, we would be able to continue with normal operations unhindered.
But we must think that, even if all measures within the factory are ensured, how do we expect the workers to commute every day from their residence to the workplace when there are no means of transportation for them on the road?
Is it believable that the factory owners could not communicate with the workers after they had decided to prolong their closures? After we had made them suffer by making them travel long distances in such uncertainty, being badly exposed to the chances of getting infected by the killer virus, can we really claim to care for these 4.1 million workers and their families? Can BGMEA, BKMEA, and the owners of industries face them ever from a moral and ethical point of view?
It is difficult to decide on such critical issues that involve the very survival of a major industry, one which is one of our lifelines. But what impression have we created as a nation in dealing with this very important workforce?
In the newspapers, we have seen pictures published of ferries laden with hundreds of thousands of workers heading towards Dhaka. A picture went viral on social media where some desperate people were seen taking a ride on a truck hidden inside drums.
We were awestruck as to what these people when the whole nation is almost on lockdown. Our military, police, and civil administration are all out on the roads giving us lessons on social distancing and we totally forgot that RMG workers are also part of our society.
Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad (retd) has worked in various RMG establishments.