- The readymade garment industry suffered from the closure of markets, suspended shipments, delayed payments, and a liquidity crisis. Bangladeshi workers suffered what was in effect, a 35% pay cut during the lockdown last year.
- The study stated that many Bangladeshi factories supplying international brands consolidated their business, and some went under.
- Many thousands of workers lost jobs and depleted their savings without a safety net to fall back on.
- As Bangladesh's second lockdown is underway, the findings offer a cautionary tale on how brands and supply chains should respond.
The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the vulnerability of garment workers in Bangladesh, finds a study released virtually on Thursday.
It said, while the industry suffered from the closure of markets, suspended shipments, delayed payments, and a liquidity crisis, Bangladeshi workers suffered what was in effect a 35% pay cut during the lockdown last year.
The study report titled "The Weakest Link in the Global Supply Chain: How the Pandemic is Affecting Bangladesh's Garment Workers," said that as the coronavirus spread across the world in early 2020 and a lockdown in Bangladesh became inevitable, businesses were forced to respond quickly to the evolving situation.
The Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies, UC Berkeley, conducted the study in collaboration with the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), with support from the UNDP Bangladesh and the Government of Sweden.
The study stated that many Bangladeshi factories supplying international brands consolidated their business, and some went under. Many thousands of workers lost jobs and depleted their savings without having a safety net to fall back on.
With Bangladesh's second lockdown underway, the findings offer a cautionary tale on how brands and supply chains should respond.
"It is extremely critical, now more than ever, to engage in research to understand the impacts of Covid-19 throughout the world. In Bangladesh, while the pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable communities, it has been particularly detrimental for the workers at the very bottom of global supply chains in the nation's many garment factories," said Dr Sanchita Saxena, director of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center.
"The pandemic has revealed the vulnerabilities of many groups, and Bangladesh's workers in the readymade garment sector bore the disproportionate burden. While the scale of the pandemic took everyone by surprise, lessons must be learned from the experience so that the effect of Bangladesh's second lockdown, now underway, causes the least harm to those who suffered the most the last time," said Salil Tripathi, IHRB's senior adviser on global issues and the report's co-author.
Addressing the report launching ceremony as chief guest, KM Abdus Salam, secretary to the labour and employment ministry, said the government has taken different initiatives to ensure worker safety and welfare during the general holidays and ongoing lockdown period.
Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), and Dr Kamal Uddin Ahmed, full-time member of the National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh, spoke as special guests.
"The government has taken strong measures to ensure health safety in the workplace, particularly in the RMG sector, to continue production in the industry as well as to safeguard the welfare of workers," said KM Abdus Salam.
"We also need to develop an occupational health and safety (OHS) culture which can create a brand image and goodwill."
BGMEA President Faruque Hassan said, "With government support, we have taken a number of steps such as the establishment of isolation centres and PCR labs in ensuring the safety of garment workers during the pandemic."
Explaining the background of establishing the Readymade Garments (RMG) Sustainability Council (RSC), he reiterated the commitment of BGMEA to developing a green and sustainable industry.
Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, said, "Apparel brands and buyers do not take any responsibility for workers during the pandemic."
She urged all to ensure jobs with dignity and a living wage for RMG workers.
"We need a fundamental mind shift in terms of the role and responsibilities of the business sector. If we want to reverse pernicious trends that have offset much of the pre-Covid progress made in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, we must commit ourselves to tackling the crisis head-on and to do so together," said Sudipto Mukerjee, resident representative of UNDP Bangladesh.
"UNDP is ready to work together with all of you present here today to ensure that, with collective action, we chart a course towards a brighter future that protects, respects, and fulfils human rights."
The report is drawn from in-depth interviews conducted between October 2020 and February 2021 with senior executives from international brands, Bangladeshi suppliers, representatives of the international civil society, and Bangladeshi labour activists.
It seeks to understand the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the industry and workers, and it proposes changes to policies and practices that can lead to long-term changes that would benefit global retailers, suppliers, and ultimately workers themselves.