Only four hundred and sixty-five garment workers have so far tested Covid positive, indicating a low infection rate in the workforce of the country's major exporter.
The figure stands in contradiction with the fear that the labour-intensive sector is at a high risk of superspreader events.
While the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) says preventive measures, hygiene protocols and workers' age have been the favourable factors, labour leaders point out limited access to test and treatment and that only compliant factories have been paying heed to health issues during the pandemic.
Since the disease broke out in Bangladesh last year, 3,365 garment workers have been tested for Covid-19, after they reported feeling sick at their workplaces, as per the apex body of the apparel sector.
Who of them contracted the coronavirus recovered following treatment, said BGMEA President Faruque Hassan. "There has been no fatality."
The garment industry employs more than 40 lakh workers. After the first Covid cases were identified on 8 March last year, health experts expressed fear that the disease might spread quickly in garment factories where thousands of workers walk into and out of the buildings every day.
Most of them are young, aged between 18 and 35, which is why their immunity level is comparatively high, Faruque said.
Ninety percent of the workers live in the vicinity of the factories that they work for, he said. They do not use public transport. They walk, cycle or commute by rickshaws to work.
Moreover, apparel makers are following health safety guidelines, making it mandatory to wear masks. Workers used masks even before the pandemic to avoid inhaling dusts while cutting fabrics, and so it is not hard to ensure that there is no deviation from the practice.
To make social distancing feasible, garment owners have made different time slots for the entry and exit of their workers. One machine is placed at least two metres from another machine.
Washing hands is compulsory while entering the premises. Sanitizers are also available.
All these measures are helping to keep the infection low, the BGMEA president said.
The BGMEA has set up two RT-PCR labs in Gazipur and one in Chattogram for Covid tests of garment workers. The labs have the capacity to test about 3,000 samples a day.
"We are bearing the cost of the tests," Faruque said, adding that BGMEA had formed a covid monitoring team of 11 staff as well.
Dr Lelin Chowdhury, director of Health and Hope Hospital in Dhaka, opposes the move to keep garment units open during the ongoing countrywide lockdown.
"It will be a disaster if the spike in Covid cases across the country gives rise to a leap of the infection rate in the garment sector," he said.
After the withdrawal of the movement restriction, Lelin said, sector-wise health guidelines, for garment, leather and jute workers, for example, would have to be formulated.
BGMEA Director Mohiuddin Rubel said BGMEA had enforced a factory protocol for keeping the factories open at the start of the pandemic.
"We made sure that all factories abide by the rules."
Workers' temperature is checked thrice at the workplace. Whenever one is showing any symptom, he is isolated from others, tested and given treatment.
"Had the garment factories been closed, it would not have been possible to keep 30-40 lakh workers from moving around. The infected workers would have gone undetected. They would not have received any treatment," Rubel said.
What do labour leaders say?
Sirajul Islam Rony, president of Bangladesh National Garments Workers Employees League, said the garment units with 10,000 workers or more should have their own testing facility.
Only big companies are overseeing Covid infection inside their factories, but non-compliant factories do not bother about health issues of their workers, he said.
Nazma Akter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, said garment owners should take measures, considering the possibility of infection among workers.
"The factories have been kept open when the infection is rising alarmingly. Garment owners should provide full protection to their workers."
Julhas Nayeen Babu, general secretary of Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity, said workers joined work 2-3 days after having a fever, cough and other symptoms of Covid-19.
Since the employers do not grant leave in writing, workers do not risk undergoing Covid test on their own, he said. They fear being isolated for 14-21 days after the results come out positive. The long absence from work may cost them the jobs.
"We have placed a six-point demand. Workers should be vaccinated on a priority basis. Isolation centres and field hospitals should be set up for them."
Shifts on alternate days will also reduce traveling hassle and help maintain social distance, Julhas said.