Death by disease or starvation: Bangladesh’s garment workers are struggling to survive

As the western world battles a pandemic, the struggle to survive in Bangladesh is more connected than is initially apparent. Though the death rate is climbing steadily – currently standing at 1,012 at the time of writing – the prevailing concern is one of economics rather than healthcare provision. In fact, as a developing country, with an economy dependent on western exports, Bangladesh stands to lose more from the impact of coronavirus on its customers than at its own shores. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has decimated world trade, in particular the supply chains involving developing South Asian countries like Bangladesh. The garment industry in Bangladesh accounts for a staggering 80% of the country’s exports and brings in over $30 billion per year. The meteoric rise of the industry over the past 20 years has seen it become the second largest exporter of garments after China. The advent and growth of fast fashion and close buyer-supplier relationships have greatly contributed to Bangladesh’s development. This has been a symbiotic relationship. For Bangladesh, it means new jobs and economic growth. For fashion brands, it means cheap labour. 

The vast majority of export contracts are with household western brands such as Nike, Primark and H&M to name but a few. And as the Covid-19 pandemic has swept across the western world, lockdown has led to businesses shutting down operations. Other than basic necessities such as food and medicine, the demand for just about everything else, including clothes, has evaporated. This has led to the cancellation of over $3 billion worth of orders to the country’s textile factories. According to Mohammed Hatem, the Senior VP of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), some buyers are using the pandemic to bargain for a price cut, while others have failed to pay, even after receiving their orders.

Garment factory in Bangladesh. © Tapash Paul/Drik Gallery

As is so often the case, those at the bottom of this precarious chain have been the hardest hit. Western companies will surely suffer, but largely speaking, they remain too big to fail. Whether through liquidation of assets or government bailouts, it seems unlikely that they will cease operations for good. The factories in Bangladesh too, should survive. The majority are owned by Bangladeshi nationals rather than through foreign entities and they will no doubt face a harder struggle. But through prudent cost-cutting measures, they should live to see the end of the pandemic. 

Where the effect of the pandemic is being felt hardest, is with the factory workers themselves. The garment industry in Bangladesh employs over four million workers, mainly women, mostly illiterate and all earning a pittance for their work. The pandemic has led big fashion brands to cancel orders en masse and as a result, factory owners have been forced to lay-off workers to survive. The workers already earn low wages with little savings to fall back on. The plight extends beyond the workers to their families. Most are earning around $100 per month and are often their families’ only source of income. As one worker puts it, “We have families in our village who are dependent on us. Whatever we earn here we send it back home. Now my family have to live without eating.”

Bangladeshi garment factory workers left without work during the coronavirus pandemic have little to no resources to combat the virus. (Mehedi Hasan/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

There is little recourse for these workers in a country that has no unemployment benefits. Companies are legally required to provide severance pay but many don’t. Illiteracy in the workforce means employees are often unaware of their lawful rights. It has been estimated by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) that around 2.3 million workers have been affected by these job cuts. Beyond that, some 15 million other workers are reliant on the garment industry for their own livelihoods. This includes food sellers, truck drivers and port workers who themselves face economic hardships as a result of global exports coming to a halt. 

Rubana Huq, the President of the BGMEA has said that the country has little to no legal power to demand international brands to fulfil their contracts. “I don’t want any grant, I don’t want any kind of charity, I just want the bare minimum justice for our workers.” The Bangladesh government for its part announced a stimulus package worth $8.5 billion dollars that includes loans to help factories pay their workers. This however, is also fraught with issues. Factory owners have said they are hesitant to take out government loans, which have to be paid back within two years, due to the uncertainty over how long the pandemic will last. 

There has been an activist-led push to compel big fashion brands that have cancelled orders to fulfil their obligations. “The fashion industry essentially operates on debt, and all of the risk is disproportionately pushed down to manufacturers and borne by the makers of our clothes, who are mostly young women,” says Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of Remake, a San Francisco-based nonprofit which aims to make the fashion industry more humane and environmentally sustainable. “Everyone is hurting,” says Barenblat. “I have a lot of empathy for that. But these brands have a lot more money than garment workers, and some of them are even eligible for government bailout funds.” 

Activists have been using an online petition and #payup on social media platforms to put pressure on brands to pay for their orders. The petition currently stands at 56,000 signatures and has led to several brands promising to pay for cancelled or suspended orders. 16 brands including H&M, Adidas and Nike have agreed to pay and orders are being fulfilled as factories reopen. As per the petition, 17 brands including GAP, Forever 21 and Primark are yet to comment or agree to pay. 

The garment workers of Bangladesh are not strangers to hardship. For many, the current episode brings back harrowing memories of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, where over 1,000 workers died in the industry’s worst ever accident. Factories were shut down as a result and workers found themselves in a similar situation. Back then, after the incident captured global attention, big fashion brands swooped in and agreed to pay workers lost wages, compensated those injured, and backed a historic overhaul of safety measures. A sceptic could argue that it was all a PR move. That the brands were simply getting in front of the inevitable media firestorm and protecting their image. 

 Rescuers work at the collapsed Rana Plaza complex in the Greater Dhaka district of Savar. Photograph: Zuma/Rex Features

A crude statue now stands at the site of the tragic accident, depicting two fists wielding a hammer and sickle each, as a monument to the lives lost. Beside is a carved inscription that reads, “Our memories are sprayed with a billion tears. We will never forget.” As factories reopen, the government has set up Covid-19 testing labs for factory workers. Workers are being given masks and new hand washing stations are being set up in factories. Social distancing, however, remains an issue. Workers returning to factories find themselves in the same cramped and overcrowded conditions as before. But that is the least of their worries. They would rather get paid. They have little choice but to work. As one factory worker aptly puts it, “I will die of hunger before I die of this virus.” 

It seems then that over the last seven years, little has changed. The vulnerable and desperate continue to bear the brunt. To the world, Bangladesh’s garment workers still remain expendable.