Garment factory owners are trying to take every penny from the subsidised funds the government has offered them to offset the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, yet they are unwilling to pay the workers the annual festival bonus for Eid-ul-Fitr.
The BGMEA and the BKMEA, two top bodies of exporters, have urged the government to spare them the legal obligation of paying workers Eid bonus.
The government, however, did not agree to their proposal.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh Textile Mills Association (BTMA) has not yet made a decision on the payment of workers' salaries and bonuses for May.
Leaders of the organisation said they would decide on it following a discussion with their members after factories reopened.
A tripartite advisory council meeting, scheduled to be held today with State Minister for Labour Begum Monnujan Sufian in the chair, will discuss the issue of paying salaries and allowances to workers before Eid. Eid-ul-Fitr will be celebrated on May 24 or 25, subject to moon sighting.
The meeting will be attended by 20 government representatives, including secretaries of 17 ministries and departments, and 20 representatives each from the employers and the workers.
According to the owners of readymade garments and textiles, there are about 40 lakh workers in these sectors. Many factories did not pay March wages to their workers who, as a result, broke the lockdown and staged demonstrations a few days ago.
In this situation, labour leaders fear that the instability may escalate if the Eid bonus is not given, saying the bonus is workers' legal right.
Under the labour law, workers are entitled to two festival allowances a year at a rate equal to their basic wages. The government and the private sector mainly provide these two allowances on Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha.
But the owners told a meeting in the Prime Minister's Office on April 22 that they would not be able to give Eid bonus owing to financial constraints as export orders were cancelled due to the coronavirus and factories remained closed for over a month during the general holidays.
The meeting ended unresolved. However, the government responded positively to the employers' proposal to distribute the workers' May salaries before the Eid from the government's stimulus fund.
When asked, Labour Secretary KM Ali Azam told The Business Standard that the Tuesday meeting would discuss the overall labour situation and payment of salaries and allowances before Eid.
In an online meeting with industry leaders on Saturday last, Monnujan Sufian called for the payment of workers' salaries and allowances before Eid but BGMEA and BKMEA leaders got disconnected from the meeting.
Arshad Jamal Dipu, vice president of BGMEA and chairman of Tusuka Group, said, "We are still not sure how much response we will get from Western buyers even if we reopen factories.
"Once the market is lost, it becomes difficult to get it back. We want to cancel this year's Eid bonus."
"If that is not possible, we would like to have the opportunity to pay the same bonus after Eid by adding it equally to the 12-month salary of workers," he added.
Mohammad Hatem, first vice president of the BKMEA, said factories, to follow social distancing rules, are being compelled to work with 30 percent of workers.
"If we have to retain the remaining 70 percent workers and pay them both salaries and bonuses, many factories will be closed after Eid," he said.
"Even though we are not able to export garments made of imported raw materials against back-to-back Letters of Credit, banks will make forced loans and collect instalments from us. We do not have a business; how can we give the bonus?"
As per the labour law, it is obligatory to pay bonuses. When asked if he feared labour unrest if the bonus was not paid, Hatem said workers were not abiding by any rules.
"The labour law allows clipping workers and factory layoffs. But we responded to the government's request and wrote to all member factories, instructing them not to lay off any workers during the crisis," he added.
BTMA President Mohammad Ali Khokon said that although a Tk5,000-crore fund was formed for salaries and allowances of workers in the export sector, including readymade garments, the government did not set up one for the textile workers.
As a result, it would be impossible for textile owners to pay salaries and allowances of their workers, he also said.
Khokon added that they had not yet had any discussion on the workers' salary-bonus before Eid as factories were closed.
Nazma Akhter, a labour leader and president of Sammilita Garments Sramik Federation, said the labour law made it obligatory to give the bonus to workers and owners must pay it.
Sirajul Islam Rony, president of the Bangladesh National Garment Workers Employees League, said there was no reason for being unable to pay bonuses if they could pay salaries.