A survey has brought to light the fact that 82% ready-made garment workers witnessed a fall in income during the last April-May period when the pandemic-led countrywide shutdown was in place.
The survey was jointly conducted by the Brac University's Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED), Brac James P Grant School of Public Health and The Subir & Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at California University.
During the two months, more than half of the apparel workers could make savings which were lower than in February as they struggled to manage three meals a day, as revealed at a webinar, entitled "Covid-19 Experience: Workers' Perspective," on the findings of the survey on Wednesday.
The Executive Director of South Asia Studies, Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, presented the report "The Impacts of Covid-19 on the Lives of Workers in the Garment Industry".
According to the findings, many workers used up their savings to manage food while 77% families of the workers experienced financial difficulties in managing daily meals.
The survey sample covered 1,038 clothing industry workers from Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chattogram.
Sixty-nine percent of the survey participants said they consumed less meat, fish and eggs in the April-May period compared to February. Sixty percent of the workers said they could not save due because of the need to manage daily meals. However, they did not use up their savings.
A whopping 92% of ready-made garment workers (RMG) said they had to trim other expenses on account of the need to manage food.
Sanchita Banerjee Saxena noted that workers had to trim their living costs and at the same time hushed up their illness for fear of losing jobs. She said the apparel manufacturing units did not adequately stress health safety and many workers did not go for Covid-19 tests even though they fell sick.
She pointed out that the RMG sector had to go through a pandemic-driven supply chain collapse as orders from buyers in the West plummeted.
However, Rubana Huq, President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), speaking on the subject of health safety, claimed the factories did indeed take adequate measures.
"Many workers were and are getting required support, ranging from tests to hospital admission, from the employers," she said, adding that the buyers were moving away from their responsibilities.
"They are lowering the prices and delaying payments, putting the owners in trouble," added Rubana Huq.
Taslima Akhter, as the workers' representative, raised questions about factory owners' sincerity toward their employees.
"The owners were rude, and therefore workers with illness would go to work. They hushed up health issues as they feared their illness could cost them their jobs," she said.
Taslima observed that financial crises and mental exhaustion could put workers at risk in the long run.
According to state-run Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE),26,110 RMG workers were terminated till last July owing to the virus fallout. Besides, 14,132 workers were laid off as the factories had no orders, while155,010 workers are still at risk of losing the jobs.
Economist and former advisor to the caretaker government Prof Dr Wahiduddin Mahmud said the ready-made garment sector was born to export. Therefore, this industry will have to tackle the pandemic situation in a way which is totally different from others.
According to him, as this sector is very labour intensive, it is necessary to look at how to maintain the balance of public health.
According to the survey, pandemic fears still haunt the workers and they are concerned over getting infected both at work and home. Of them, 59% still feel that they are somewhat likely to get infected by the virus at their factories, while only 29% think they will contract it at home.
The survey said that 87% of the participants said their factories took protective measures, including providing workers with personal protective equipment, encouraging them to maintain health safety and social distancing and sending home workers with virus-like symptoms.
However, 54% of women and 45% of men surveyed think it will not be possible to maintain self-isolation at home if they get infected. Ninety percent of the workers said they did not receive any government support in the pandemic.
The workers' expectations of the government include financial support, health services, job security and food rationing system.
Begum Monnujan Sufian, Minister of State for Labour and Employment, at the programme highlighted the stimulus packages announced by the government for the RMG sector.