Gazipur, a place for hundreds of apparel factories, has emerged as a hotspot for the coronavirus outbreak After Dhaka and Narayanganj.
A senior government official pinned the blame on the garment owners who brought in thousands of workers in Gazipur and adjacent areas amid a countrywide lockdown after they decided to start operations in their factories from April 5.
"After the factory reopening announcement, thousands of workers returned to Gazipur from coronavirus hotspot Narayanganj and many other districts, putting Gazipur in a vulnerable situation," said Shamsunnahar PPM, superintendent of police (SP) of Gazipur.
She raised the issue to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a video conference with her. The PM was holding the meeting on Monday with public representatives and top officials from four districts of Dhaka division and Mymensingh division.
"The workers should not have been recalled at this risky time. Besides, they are still in Gazipur as many factories are yet to pay wages to workers," Shamsunnahar told the prime minister.
Before this mass arrival of the workers who had earlier left for their homes with the country wide shutdown, there was no coronavirus patient in the industrial district.
As of Monday, Gazipur had 279 Covid-19 patients, adding 106 more patients in the last 24 hours. The number was 173 on Sunday.
Four hundred and ninety-two new Covid-19 patients were detected on Monday in the country.
Responding to the concern of district's top cops, the Prime minister said many workers have recently suffered a lot as some factories asked them to join work early this month.
"It was a wrong decision," she said.
Meanwhile, Additional Director General of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) Prof Dr Nasima Sultana in an online briefing said on Monday, "We're seeing that the infection rate in Gazipur has gone up and also in Kishoreganj. 19.5 percent of the newly-infected people are from Gazipur, 13 percent from Kishoreganj," Dr Nasima added.
Owners' failure to pay off workers for March has made the densely populated district more vulnerable to the Covid-19 outbreak, a respiratory disease that has brought the world to a standstill. Gazipur has no Covid-19 testing lab yet and people have to travel all the way to Dhaka and stand in queues for hours.
At the meeting Deputy Commissioner of Gazipur SM Tarikul Islam drew the PM's attention saying that the BGMEA president has recently asked for BRTC buses to carry workers from several districts to their work places as many factories will be reopened on April 26.
Though the Prime Minister expressed her doubt whether the factories should be reopened on April 24-25 in Gazipur after the spread of coronavirus in the area, owners can reopen their factories only after ensuring health safety and social distancing, she said.
"If they want to reopen their industries or restart operation, and if they can engage the workers in operation following the health guidelines, keep them protected and arrange their accommodation in safe places -- many industries have their own places to arrange this accommodation -- then some industries could be reopened," she said.
Sheikh Hasina directed the district administration to discuss with owners who want to reopen their factories accepting those conditions.
She said pharmaceutical factories and some other industries that are producing personal protection equipment (PPEs) will remain open.
Meanwhile, BGMEA, the forum for garment exporters, in a clarification on Monday said that they have no authority to order closure or opening of factories. Only the government and its authority concerned can take the decision.
The BGMEA pointed to an order of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments issued on April 1, saying that export-oriented factories with international work orders and those making PPEs, masks, sanitiser and medicines could keep their factories running.
According to the BGMEA data, Gazipur area has 808 apparel factories and among those, workers of 62 factories remained unpaid till Monday.
Owners of those factories were directed by the Labour Ministry to pay their workers by April 16. BGMEA President Rubana Huq also requested them to maintain that deadline.
According to the industrial police's data, in Gazipur zone - workers of 75 BGMEA, 39 BKMEA, 17 BTMA and 283 others factories were unpaid till yesterday (April 19).
Workers stage demonstration for arrear pays
In the face of rising misery and peril of infection of the garment workers, many factories in Gazipur have not paid their dues yet.
For the last few days, apparel industry workers have blockaded the roads demanding payment of their March salary along with arrears, ignoring the lockdown.
Gazipur industrial police said that on Monday seven apparel factories workers staged a protest demanding arrear payment of salaries.
Gazipur zone Industrial Police SP Siddiqur Rahman said, "We are having a hard time controlling the agitating RMG workers as we can not get in touch with the factory owners to sort out the situation. This is increasing the risk of spreading the coronavirus, he added.
According to the industrial police's data, 2072 factories are located at Gazipur zone, of them 1090 factories from the export oriented readymade garment sector. Some 830 factories are BGMEA members, 138 factories BKMEA members and 122 factories are BTMA members and the rest of the 982 factories are from other industries.
The Industrial Police officials said that on Monday about 120 factories were open producing PPE, Masks, hand gloves, pharmaceuticals and livestock and fish feeds.