Garment worker Shimu Akhter has a pleasantly unique experience to share about her time in Gazipur during the Covid-19 pandemic, thanks to her employer Hannan Group – a Bangladeshi RMG company committed to the welfare of its nearly 12,000 workers.
It is the second garment factory where the 19-year-old joined six months before the government announced a countrywide shutdown at the end of March to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Hundreds of thousands of garment workers, along with workers of other low-income groups, at the time, crammed into vehicles to head to their village homes amid concerns over layoffs and unpaid salaries.
But Hannan Group took a worker-friendly approach to deal with the pandemic.
The company told all workers of its five factories – including Shimu – that their time spent in the shutdown would be recorded as paid leave, and they would get their salaries as usual in the first week of the months to come.
That was only the beginning of a memorable episode that was unfolding. Shimu was diagnosed with Covid-19 after she returned to her workplace a month later when the garment industry was allowed to resume production so that it could catch up with the export market.
Ahead of the reopening of his factories, ABM Shamsuddin, chairman and managing director of the group, mobilised all his resources to prepare for the day when a large number of workers, including Shimu, would fall sick.
"They are my family, and so I had to think of everything I could do to protect them," he said in a recent interview with The Business Standard at his office in Gazipur.
He spent Tk2 crore in May and June in his lonely battle against the deadly virus at a time when order cancellations worth Tk20-30 crore by global retailers made his future business potential look grim.
His case stands out in a sector where many garment companies disregarded worker safety during the pandemic.
"I recalled what Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said at a meeting with the Gazipur administration, that the industry would have to be opened for the sake of preserving livelihoods. But, she said, garment factory owners could ensure the wellbeing of workers and safety through isolation of the infected," Shamsuddin said.
That inspired him, and he set out in search of empty buildings in the vicinity of his factories to keep his employees in isolation when they were suspected of carrying the infection.
However, he and his managers had to trick the building owners into renting out the properties because "People were so fearful of Covid-19 that contracting the infection was almost socially forbidden," Shamsuddin said.
As many as nine buildings, which had once been sub-contractor factories and were left empty for years, were rented to send as many as 1,357 workers into isolation.
The building owners were told that contractual workers would be kept there for safety from the virus. There were separate arrangements for male and female staff.
Stickers were pasted on transparent windows to prevent any unintended curiosity among passersby. Shamsuddin also painted his office vehicles white to transport food hiding the company's identity.
Workers were checked thrice a day at factories to see if their temperature rose. So far, 700 workers have been tested under a special arrangement.
Workers suspected and confirmed of having Covid-19 were also provided with separate hot water dispensers for vapour therapy, a popular treatment believed to provide relief from cough when one has been infected with the virus.
"It was a lot of work but we did it quite successfully," Shamsuddin said, adding that his export-oriented knitwear factories are expected to gradually recover with new orders now coming in.
Shimu and the other workers who spent weeks in isolation have all been paid as promised for the period, though they were absent from work.
As the proverb goes, "Charity begins at home," and Shamsuddin said he believes his workers are his foremost important family members to be cared for before anybody else. As he spoke, a woman in PPE pushed open the door to his office to check his temperature.