This crisis is like no other crisis. This time is like no other time. It is time now to stand by people in need by giving them food, financial assistance and courage to fight back. It's not a time to give priority to profits and losses over humans in business.
But our RMG factory owners, unfortunately almost everyone, have shown us an unsympathetic face of humanity in this dire situation by laying off workers in a wholesale manner.
They have taken away their jobs and given them less than their due share of money to survive in this unprecedented crisis they have ever gone through.
Their blunt actions go against the clarion call of global economists and thinkers who have strongly urged businesses not to lay off workers during this coronavirus pandemic that shuttered not only economic activities, but also crippled people's normal lives. They have made the call to avert economic catastrophe.
Take the suggestion of Penny Goldberg, an economics professor at Yale University of USA and former chief economist of the World Bank Group.
She suggested avoiding layoffs at any price. "Wherever possible, switch to part-time work or fewer hours. If companies do not have the cash to pay employees, don't pay them, but keep them on the books."
In her view, keeping one's job (even if only an illusion of a job) will provide much-needed psychological support and signal that we are in this together. Otherwise, we are risking not only a recession but also a complete collapse of civil order.
Megan Greene, a global economist and senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School also suggested the businesses should not lay off workers in this pandemic.
She says the priority for politicians must be to limit the harm to the most vulnerable workers. This economist even speaks for the introduction of a work-sharing program to avert the layoff.
"Work-sharing has been used very successfully in Germany and the Netherlands in the face of economic downturns. Rather than lay off workers, an employer cuts their hours," she notes.
But our RMG factory owners do not care much about the long-term consequences of their drastic action.
They even did not pay heed to the call made by the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments for not enforcing layoffs at factories. The government agency went quiet after just making the request. They did not strongly negotiate with the factories preventing them from going for wholesale layoffs.
Strictly speaking, we cannot term the owners' actions illegal, as they have resorted to the provisions of the Labour Law of 2006 to defend the wholesale layoffs.
What does the legal provision say?
According to section 12 of the labour law, an employer may, at any time, if necessary in the event of fire, sudden catastrophe, breakdown of machinery, stoppage of power supply, epidemics, widespread riots or any other cause beyond his control, stop any section or sections of his establishment, wholly or partly, for such period as the cause for such stoppage continues to exist.
What benefits do the owners gain by laying off?
According to section 16 of the act, workers will be paid half of the total of the basic wages and dearness allowance and ad-hoc or interim wages, if any, and equal to the full amount of housing allowance that would have been payable to him if he had not been so laid-off.
So, we cannot call their actions illegal. But are their actions ethical and moral? Can an employer abandon his employee in such a crisis?
The owners, who have made huge fortunes in the past, thanks to the workers who have tirelessly worked for years for their employers have now turned a blind eye to their very employees' miseries who have suddenly become burdensome for the owners. They are now dangerous like the virus. So the RMG factory owners hurriedly got rid of them.
The sector that earned $30 billion foreign currency last fiscal year, which accounted for 84 percent of the country's export earnings, has suddenly become so poor that it cannot afford their workers' one-month's salary without work. Have they become bankrupt and found no way for survival, but to lay off their workers?
They even act clueless to the fact that the Tk4,500 crore stimulus package announced by the government for the export-oriented RMG factories comes from public exchequer that is actually taxpayer's money.
Who are these taxpayers? These are people and RMG workers who have been laid off so abruptly. These are workers who had to demonstrate on the streets on many occasions demanding their minimum wage, and pay tax whenever they buy anything. So workers are paying for the owners' stimulus package. They have paid in past years too as whenever the government has given the RMG factories any financial benefits that money was given from the public exchequer.
But RMG owners have conveniently forgotten all about it and turned their backs on their workers in this dire crisis.
After finding it difficult to maintain the current workforce because of the pandemic impact, some companies in the UK and the USA also laid off their workers. But workers in those countries are not as helpless as our workers. After being jobless, furloughed employees can apply for a government grant in this crisis or apply for unemployment benefits.
But the only 'benefit' option our jobless workers now have is starvation.