The workers, who risked their lives to get home during Eid holidays, pushed through immense ordeals to return to Dhaka and its surrounding areas on just a day's notice
Industrial zones across Bangladesh – especially the readymade garment (RMG) factories – began buzzing with activities on Sunday, just a day after the government decided to reopen export-oriented industries amid the Covid-19 restrictions.
The workers, who risked their lives to get home during Eid holidays, pushed through immense ordeals to return to their workplaces in Dhaka and its surrounding areas on just a day's notice – reigniting a heated debate about the concerned parties' reported lack of coordination.
A seemingly never-ending tide of people is still returning to the capital from across the country.
Addressing the circumstances, Health Minister Zahid Maleque told the media that Covid-19 infections will rise in Bangladesh as RMG factories reopened amid the stricter lockdown measures.
"People from different parts of the country rejoined their workplaces as RMG factories reopened on Sunday. Infections will rise because hygiene rules are not being followed," he said after attending the inaugural function of First Year MBBS Class (2020-21) in Dhaka.
The majority of export-oriented factories belong to the RMG sector. Several apparel makers and workers' leaders told The Business Standard that 85%-90% workers were present at their respective workplaces on the first day of factory reopening.
On the issue, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) President Faruque Hassan said, "Some factories even reported a workers' attendance of 95%. We are optimistic about restarting work in full swing if restrictions are relaxed after 5 August."
Around 90% workers rejoined their workplaces at the BMGEA's member factories in Chattogram, said the organisation's First Vice President Syed Nazrul Islam.
Around 2,000 active factories are BGMEA members, while there are 800 active members in the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA).
BKMEA Vice President, and also CEO of Fatullah Apparels, Fazlee Shamim Ehsan said, "Eighty-seven percent workers rejoined my factory. Besides, 85%-90% workers rejoined their respective workplaces in BKMEA's member factories.
"We plan to go full steam ahead in the next two-three days."
However, some factories reported a workers' attendance below 80%. Rashed Mosharraf, executive director (marketing) of Zaber & Zubair Fabrics – one of the largest home textile exporters in the country, says the workers' attendance at his factory was below this mark too.
National Garments Workers and Employees Association's President Sirajul Islam Rony said, "Nearly 90% of the workers showed up at factories on Sunday. Just like before, factories are offering hand washing facilities and enforcing mask rules.
"We have not heard any complaints from the workers so far."
After the countrywide Covid-19 lockdown ended on 14 July this year, the government announced another lockdown from 23 July to 5 August. The government also decided to shut down all factories excluding those making essential goods and personal protective equipment.
The government decision – which resulted in 18-20 days of holiday – raised concerns among the export-oriented industry owners. Apparel makers then approached the government voicing worries about possible losses in exports and facing the financial burden of high air freight costs.
Following that announcement, waves of workers left their workplaces for home to celebrate Eid-al-Adha with their families. According to workers' leaders, more than 20 lakh RMG workers left Dhaka during that time.
The government on 30 July announced that the export-oriented factories will be allowed to reopen amid the stricter lockdown from 1 August. However, parties concerned offered no solutions on how these workers will return to their workplaces.
Since Saturday morning, workers of RMG and many other sectors began their long and arduous journey back to their workplaces on trucks, covered vans, auto-rickshaws and even on foot. Workers braved torrential rain and paid multiple times the usual fair to return to work.
This current chain of events has become a matter of hot debate across the country, as many empathised with the workers' ordeals.
According to data provided by the Industrial Police, 61% of the 8,226 factories in Bangladesh's six industrial zones operated on Sunday. The government is allowing only a selected group of factories to operate amid the lockdown – including the export-oriented ones.
A senior official of the Industrial Police, on condition of anonymity, told The Business Standard that the factories that are now operating have been exempted from the lockdown restrictions.
Members of the BGMEA, BKMEA, Bangladesh Textile Mills Association (BTMA) and factories under the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority are mainly involved in exports.
Data shows that among the 3,074 factories belonging to the above mentioned categories, 2,662 or 86% operated on Sunday. Besides, from other sectors, 3,051 of the 5,152 factories ran operations yesterday.