Tanjila Begum was a sewing helper in a garment factory and her husband Ukil Sheikh worked in a scrap fabrics warehouse in Gazipur before Covid-19 struck. They lost their jobs as the pandemic arrived. They had to go back to their village with three children.
Tanjila and Ukil returned to Gazipur after a few months, leaving their children behind. Tanjila was able to manage a job at another garment factory – albeit at a much lower salary – her husband is yet to find one.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a crippling blow to the life and livelihood of these two and hundreds of other garment workers in Gazipur. Many lost their jobs while many others were sent on compulsory leave.
But when they returned to Gazipur after the general holidays ended most of these workers found it hard to get a job. While there are cases of some working for reduced wages, some had to change professions, working as day labourers, to survive.
Many of these people have not been able to bring back their families because they are not able to bear the expenditure at this moment.
Tanjila now earns Tk6,000 a month whereas her previous salary was Tk8,500. Her husband Ukil works as a day labourer – that is when he gets work.
Tanjila said after the Tk2,000 room rent, they now have around Tk6,000 for all other family expenditures.
"Life is very hard this way but we are managing somehow just to survive," said Tanjila.
Another garment worker Sagar Mia used to work in a factory with a salary of Tk14,000. The factory went into a closure during the pandemic-induced shutdown and he lost the job in April.
Sagar was overwhelmed with the thought of how he would run his family and send money to his parents back home in Khamarpara village in Kurigram.
Like Tanjila, Sagar was also forced to return to the village with his wife. There he worked as a farm labourer for three months before returning to Gazipur in July.
After a lot of searching, the former RMG worker got a job in a printing factory at Konabari of Gazipur town – at a much lower salary.
"My salary is now Tk10,000. I got the job because I had some experience. The salary is lower than before, but I had no other option. It is very hard to manage my family expenditures with this amount," Sagar said.
The stories are more or less the same for Shanta Akhter of Bendo Apparels Limited, Harun of Diganta Sweater Factory, Md Mostakin from Sirajganj – they all lost their jobs and are now finding it very difficult to keep up with their lives. RMG worker Harun now sells vegetables.
Mostakin got back his old job but at a lower wage. "Now I live in a mess [shared accommodation], which costs less money," he said.
The wages of many workers have been reduced. They are forced to work for low wages. At present, the workers are living in the most subhuman conditions
Md Ashrafuzzaman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Alliance Konabari Committee, said most of the workers went back to their villages after the general holiday was announced in March.
Three types of workers – pregnant workers, aged workers and those with less than one year of service – were laid off during the Corona crisis, he said.
According to the industrial police, about 10,000 workers lost their jobs in Gazipur during the pandemic. Many factories have still continued to reduce their workforce.
Jalal Uddin, additional superintendent of Gazipur Industrial Police, said workers' unrest was seen in many factories during the pandemic. A few days ago, workers of Style Crafts Limited staged a demonstration in the Tin Sarak area demanding arrears, he said.
A number of factories told The Business Standard that businesses have not been good for them.
Masud Hassan, managing director of Ion Knit Composite Factory in Itahata area, said, "My factory is barely limping. The number of orders has dropped significantly. Several workers had to be laid off to reduce costs."
Kamal Hossain, managing director of Diganta Sweater Factory, said, "We still have to keep the knitting section closed." He expects the section will be normal in February.
"We want to recruit those who worked here before," said Kamal.
Nasir Uddin, director of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said, "We are trying to keep the living standard of the workers normal. The factories have been kept afloat – even though the business is not very profitable now – so that they do not have to shut down for good and the workers' living standard remains normal."