Garment factories have planned to resume operations on April 26, even though the Covid-19 situation in Bangladesh seems to be worsening with cases rising every day.
As per the plan, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has developed a set of guidelines for factory operations and distributed it among its members.
The plan came after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during a videoconference on Monday, had said some readymade garment factories could be resumed with limited workers after ensuring their health, safety, accommodation and transport facilities.
On Monday evening, BGMEA leaders met with the premier where they discussed factory re-opening and layoff issues, said meeting sources.
The BGMEA guidelines include workers' health and safety, medical facility along with a Covid-19 taskforce, social distancing at workplaces, ensuring quarantine and self-isolation facilities.
The guidelines mention that a factory should obtain necessary permission from local and national government agencies as a prerequisite to open. However, factories located in coronavirus epicentres can only be opened in the second phase of operations.
"We have a plan to open factories from April 26," said a factory owner, asking not to be named.
After the prime minister's directive, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) is expected to issue a directive by this week in this regard, which will cover the government agencies' permission issue, he added.
Another garment owner said, "The BGMEA guidelines have some misconceptions over maintaining six-foot social distancing among workers on floors. It is only possible for textile and spinning mills, not for garment factories.
"Our workers work in queues on floors, quite like a chain."
Factories should create a one-directional flow of movement through the premises to most frequented areas to ensure social distancing, read the guidelines, adding, "Enforce different working hours and lunch shifts for different sections to maintain 6-feet distancing from each other."
Since the countrywide shutdown was enforced on March 25, the BGMEA made several attempts to keep production open in factories which had export orders or were making protective dresses.
The association's unclear position led to a Dhaka-bound influx of workers in the first week of April, with thousands rushing on foot or by whatever means they could to draw wages and save jobs. Amid widespread criticism, the two apparel sector associations - the BGMEA and the BKMEA - on April 10 made a joint statement to keep their factories closed till April 25 in line with the extended general holidays to contain the spread of Covid-19.
On April 15, the BGMEA president requested the state-owned transport agency BRTC to arrange special buses to help apparel workers return to work from April 26.
BGMEA media committee chairman Khan Monirul Alam Shuvo told The Business Standard last night, "We are still working with the safety protocols and also expecting a clear guideline from the government. But the date of opening solely depends on the Covid-19 situation".
The other requirements of BGMEA
Factories should provide transportation to workers and must ensure that riders sit in a zig-zag manner and maintain distance, say the BGMEA guidelines, asking everyone to wear a mask and have their own handkerchiefs before entering the factory.
Body temperature of everyone should be checked during entering the factory. If anyone is found with a temperature or more than 37 degree Celsius or 98.6 Fahrenheit, they should be sent back homes.
The factories should create a Covid-19 taskforce. The number of members in the taskforce will depend on the factory size.
Apparel factories should have an on-site medical team and a separate area to assess and quarantine suspected patients.
Regardless of whether they have a medical team or not, factories should at least provide all with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), FFP3 or N95 masks, face shields and gloves. The medical staff should also be instructed to dispose of all PPE equipment in a safe manner.
Workers should be assured that workers will not face any punitive action from the management if they show any Covid-19 symptoms and need leaves therefore. Workplaces will not require a sick leave certificate, according to the guidelines.
"BGMEA advises its members strongly against the use of 'disinfection chambers' as they are not effective enough, may cause health hazards and disregards workers' dignity," the guidelines read.
BGMEA also advises all members to put maximum emphasis on frequent and quality cleaning and disinfecting of highly used surfaces, including door knobs, handrails, toilet seats, work surfaces and common areas where virus transmission may occur. Machines should be disinfected at the end of the day.
Sanitisation staff must be adequately dressed with absolute body covering and gloves, and these should be disposed of properly, wrapped up in a polybag, BGMEA said.
"If possible, create an isolation area that is away from busy areas to create a quarantine facility, dedicated to staff to care for patients. Create a first responder team who will have access to PPE, in addition to the medical unit, and guide them to the pre-specified area for further assessment," the guidelines also say.
Staff must keep record of workers' names, card numbers, an operational contact number and the displayed symptoms, said BGMEA.
However, relevant industry people said these guidelines are hard for garment factories to fully comply with.
A denim textile high official said, "Most factories have no residential facilities. It can be possible only by the textile and spinning mills as about 70 percent of their workers live inside their mill premises.
"Creating a quarantine or isolation facility is also very tough for every factory. There is another risk. If anyone is identified with Covid-19, the full dormitory would be locked down."
Earlier, BGMEA tried several times to open their factories but finally ended up in making a joint statement to keep their factories closed till April 25 in line with extended general holidays to contain the spread of Covid-19.
On April 15, BGMEA President Rubana Huq sent a letter to the Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation, seeking cooperation by providing special buses for their workers to return to Dhaka.
BGMEA media and public relations standing committee Chairman Khan Monirul Alam Shuvo told The Business Standard, "We are still working with the safety protocols and expecting a clear guideline from the government. But the date of opening factories solely depends on the Covid-19 situation."