Thousands of workers lost their jobs when 47 readymade garment (RMG) factories in Chattogram shut down last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
From March to December in 2020, the factories were closed with many foreign buyers cancelling orders and cutting purchase prices on their clothes made in Bangladesh.
According to Bangladesh Poshak Shramik Trade Union Federation (Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Federation), about 22,000 workers lost their jobs in Chattogram last year either due to staffing cuts or outright factory closures.
Najma Begum was a helper in the finishing department of Rizia Garments in Agrabad of Chattogram city. The garment worker was on maternity leave starting January 2020 but when the Covid-19 pandemic started here in March last year, the factory authorities called her to the factory and took away her ID card. They told her she would be notified later about when to rejoin work but she has not yet received a call from the factory.
Every day she waits for a call to rejoin work and has been passing her days in utter misery.
Garment industry owners say it had become extremely difficult for them to run their businesses in the current global economic crisis induced by the pandemic. Many foreign buyers have not paid their bills and in a chain reaction, garment owners are now struggling to repay bank loans. Things are getting complicated.
Buyers are also cutting back on what they are willing to pay for RMG products, according to the owners.
Of the closed factories, 30 are members of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
Md Jassim Uddin, executive director of closed Gold Mart Apparels Pvt Ltd, said, "We faced extreme financial crisis due to lack of orders towards the beginning of the pandemic.
Unable to pay salaries to workers and bear other expenditures, we had to shut down the factory in April last year."
Only garment factories which were exporting for the last three years, received government incentives and support, he continued.
"We worked as subcontractors and not direct exporters. That was why we did not get the incentive. One year has passed since we have closed the factory but we are still unable to reopen it due to financial problems," he said.
At present, of 294 garment factories in Chattogram, only 178 are making export oriented garments.
On the other hand, Fazlul Kabir, president of the Chattogram District unit of the Garment Workers Trade Union Federation, said factory owners did not pay service benefits to most workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
"Some factories have not even paid the arrears of the workers. The workers were also threatened not to discuss the issues with trade union leaders," he said.
However, Syed Nazrul Islam, first vice president of BGMEA, rejected allegations of not paying salaries to workers.
He told the Business Standard that when the Covid-19 pandemic started in the country early last year, orders for RMG products dwindled. Many foreign buyers cancelled orders and they also paid less for their orders.
Under these circumstances, RMG factory owners were faced with an acute financial crisis, he went on. The owners of 30 garments factories which were BGMEA members, had to shut down their factories, he said.
According to BGMEA, the list of closed factories may grow longer with the second wave of Covid-19.
Before they could get over the losses of the previous year, the deteriorating situation of the pandemic has shaken them again.
The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment does not have actual information on closed factories in the district and trade union federation leaders say the department is not very active.
In this regard, Abdullah Al Shakib Mubarrat, deputy inspector general (DIG) of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment, said, "We have information that 10 garment factories, which are not members of any organization, were closed. Around 3,000 workers worked there."
The 30 closed factories, which are members of the BGMEA, are -- Bra Maks, Bakarsons Apparels, Dress Age, Glory Industry, Moon Fashion, Annex Fashion, EFA Apparels, Genini Fashion, Koka Industry, Momin Apparels, SN Sports Wear, Samotaf Apparels, Tahersons Fashion, TKM Garments, Wazhico Apparels, Fashion Create, Gold Mart Apparels, Shamim Fashion, Gallant Fashion, Mir Fashion Wear, Unitex Attires, Progressive Knitwear, Fortune Fashion, Tafop Apparels, Salam Apparels, Eden Fashion, Texoline Apparels , Dress Shirts, Azim Mannan Garments, and Global Garments.