Nightmare for Bangladeshi fast fashion clothing manufacturers amid coronavirus outbreak, Southeast Asia News and Top Stories


ASHULIA (AFP) – One day Parvin struggled to meet the fast fashion demands of European capitals, the next day she was among hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers instantly laid off as the coronavirus was hitting.

Major international brands have canceled orders worth billions of dollars due to the pandemic, decimating Bangladesh’s largest export industry and hurting, in particular, rural women who dominate the workforce.

Parvin, a 28-year-old seamstress, joined thousands of workers queuing to collect final wages at banknote tables set up at the Al Muslim factory, one of the largest in the country that supplies some of the labels most famous in the world.

Workers lined up in long queues, spaced three feet apart in an effort to maintain social distancing, and anxiety set in as the banknote towers collapsed.

“We don’t know when it will reopen,” said Parvin, who received his March salary just before the giant complex closed.

She has no other means to support her family and has called her situation a “disaster”.

“Many factories have already closed. My husband is unemployed.”

Making shirts, sweaters, bras and socks for stores in wealthy countries is the foundation of Bangladesh’s impoverished economy.

It accounts for 80 percent of the South Asian nation’s US $ 40 billion (S $ 57 billion) annually in exports and has played a pivotal role in its growth over the past two decades.

A Bangladeshi security guard wearing a face mask peeks through the door of a closed garment factory in Dhaka on April 9, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Over four million people, mostly women from poor rural villages, are employed in the sector.

But the industry has a reputation for running sweatshops, with workers working in dangerous factories without labor protection or a social safety net.

The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when the collapse of the garment complex claimed the lives of 1,130 people, exposed appalling security conditions in Bangladeshi factories.

Now, as international brands recede and a government lockdown prevents people in Bangladesh from traveling, laid-off workers are complaining of being dumped without any help.

Thousands of workers – some of whom only earned US $ 100 a month – staged multiple protests over the past week to complain that factories did not pay them.

“A lot of us don’t have food at home now. We can’t even ask for help on the streets because the poorest people would laugh at us because we have jobs,” he said. said sewing machine operator Didarul Islam.

” What do we do ? To starve ? the 38-year-old father of two added.

Workers line up to collect their wages at a clothing factory in Savar on April 7, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

International brands have canceled or suspended orders worth $ 3.11 billion, affecting more than two million workers, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).

“The situation is apocalyptic,” said Asif Ibrahim, factory owner and director of BGMEA.

The Bangladeshi group and its counterparts in China, Vietnam, Pakistan, Cambodia and Myanmar have pleaded with the majors not to cancel orders.

“It is time for global companies to respect and honor their commitment to labor rights, social responsibility and sustainable supply chains,” a joint statement said.

Some of the big companies, including H&M and Inditex, which runs the Zara chain, have responded by promising not to cancel existing orders. Others have asked for discounts, according to the BGMEA.

There was, however, no promise for the future.

H&M chief executive Helena Helmersson said purchasing was a key area where “strong action” was taken due to the pandemic.

Workers work at a garment factory in Ashulia, Dhaka, April 7, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

But the situation is already dire in Ashulia, home to 600 factories where workers live in rows of concrete slums near the factories.

Mr Rubel Ahmed, owner of a factory employing 250 people making clothing for Spanish retailers such as SDV, Ritchi and Vamutex, said he had lost more than 50% of his business.

Mr Ahmed, who chain-smoked watching empty machines in his factory, said the pandemic was “a hundred times” worse than the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013.

“Those who have smaller factories like me will be destroyed,” he said.

Activist groups say action must be taken to ensure wages resist a return to work.

“People will remember when this crisis is over which brands have stood up to protect their workers and employees and which have not,” said Dominique Muller of Labor Behind the Label, a UK rights group. workers in the clothing industry.

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