Although the coronavirus tally in the country continues to spiral every passing day, clothing manufacturers have reopened their factories on a limited scale from today.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) -- the two apex body in the apparel sector -- have decided reopen all the garment manufacturing units by May 3 next, with workers residing nearby the factories and in their adjacent areas.
Health experts, however, have cast doubt on the owners' pledge to ensuring proper health practices and social distancing in these labour-intensive industrial factories.
Leaders of the two owners' associations have called upon the workers, who have gone to their villages, not to return to work right now, but experts believe those workers will also come back in fear of losing their job.
The Ministry of Health Affairs has not made any direct statement over the reopening of factories amid increasing coronavirus infections across the country.
Referring to government offices which are closed during the government-announced general holiday extended till May 5, Additional Secretary of the ministry Md Habibur Rahman, however, said factory owners and the regulatory bodies concerned should work in accordance with government decision.
"We have expressed our opinion to the authorities concerned. Hope they will take those into consideration," added Habibur, also focal point of the health ministry media cell formed to combat Covid-19.
Meanwhile, Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment AKM Ali Azam said he had also learned about the reopening of the garment factories. But as BGMEA and BKMEA has not yet informed the ministry about their decision officially, he too refrained from making any comment on this.
However, State Minister for labour Monnujan Sufian on Saturday said industry owners must strictly follow health guidelines and coordinate with the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, Industrial Police, and the Directorate General of Health Services, if they want to reopen their factories.
While addressing a meeting of a trilateral advisory council, the minister also asked factory owners not to terminate workers or lay them off. She also asked them to pay wages and festival allowances to the workers before Eid.
First Vice-President of BKMEA Mohammad Hatem on Saturday told The Business Standard that they had decided to reopen the knitting, dyeing, and sample units on April 26. "All factories will be reopened in phases starting from May 2," he added.
Workers who have gone to far-off villages did not need to come back right now, he said, adding that they had decided to reopen their factories to keep the economy moving.
Hatem said BGMEA would also reopen all readymade garment factories in phases.
Factories in Dhaka and its adjacent areas will be reopened on Sunday. The RMG manufacturing located in Savar and Ashulia will resume operation on Monday, while those in Gazipur and Narsingdi will be opened on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.
BGMEA Director Rezwan Selim said factories which are going to reopen should follow BGMEA's factory opening guideline.
He said most of the owners, except those who have work orders, have not shown interest in reopening their factories.
Rezwan Selim also mentioned BGMEA leaders in their meeting also emphasised paying workers' wages for April in due time.
According to the BGMEA data, there are 360 factories in Dhaka zone. Of them only 127 are willing to resume operations.
Meanwhile, 215 out of 471 factories in Savar-Ashulia zone have applied to resume operations.
The largest industrial zone of Gazipur and Mymansing consists of 808 factories. Of them, 448 factories want to reopen.
Narayonganj zone has 269 factories, 66 of them that have work orders want to reopen.
According to sources, BGMEA on Thursday opened a web portal and asked its members to upload information to it regarding which factory has how much orders and which factories need to be reopened.
BGMEA and BKMEA decided to reopen the factories after that.
Professor Nazrul Islam, former vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and a virologist, told The Business Standard that some garment factories are going to be reopened to keep the economy moving but the situation will deteriorate if social distancing is not maintained.
Highlighting some important health practices, he said, "Workers in the garment factories must keep a distance of six feet from each other. They have to go to work wearing facemask. There should be adequate arrangements for washing hands at the factories.
"Workers will have to be divided into three teams. Each of them will work for 7 days and then stay under quarantine for 14 days. The three teams will be working by rotation. Monitoring must be ensured so that no infected worker enters the factory."
If these practices are not followed, workers will get infected and will transmit the disease to their family and others they will come in contact with.
Export-oriented factories must reopen: Salman F Rahman
Export-oriented factories must be opened up gradually by maintaining necessary health protocols for the sake of the economy, said Salman F Rahman, private sector affairs adviser to the prime minister.
"We have to make a decision. We have the Sweden model in front of us; they did not enforce lockdown. In China's Wuhan, a second wave of infection is taking place. Germany and France are still suffering, new infections and deaths are happening, but still they are opening up their factories," he said.
He told this at a virtual discussion organised by the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI). Business leaders, economists, editors and policymakers joined the discussion.
Salman said: "We have to know how our economy will suffer and what is our health risk if we want to open up our economy gradually by taking precautions."
He asked the FBCCI to prepare a guideline on how it could be done.
Sheikh Fazle Fahim, president of FBCCI, said the federation was working with the finance and commerce ministries, the Prime Minister's Office, the Bangladesh Bank and various trade associations to understand and offset the impacts of the Covid-19.
Rubana Huq, president of the BGMEA, said they were under pressure to allow opening 856 factories. She said they wanted to open the factories zone-wise, in a limited way and under a decided timeframe.
Mahbubul Alam, president of the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the importers were facing trouble at the Chattogram port as they were not being able to get clearance because of limited office hours of the shipping agents and procedural delay by the customs.
"Because of that, the importers are being fined - per container $70. I want the offices of the shipping agents to be extended by two hours to 3:00pm instead of 1:00 pm," he said.
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute, said that the industrial areas and the whole country should be categorized in red, yellow and green colours.
He said the FBCCI, BGMEA and other trade bodies should work together to prepare sector-based health protocols under which the factories could be opened up.