Readymade garment (RMG) factories in coronavirus hotspots Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj resumed operations from April 26 amid the deadly Covid-19 pandemic.
At a time when coronavirus cases continue to rise without any sign of slowing down, RMG workers are journeying towards Dhaka packed into crowded trucks, buses and ferries from across the country to rejoin work at factories.
Under the circumstances, health experts have raised concerns over the possible spike in Covid-19 infections in Bangladesh.
After a week of silence on the matter, Health Minister Zahid Maleque on Sunday said the RMG industry can resume operations by following strict health regulations. He made the statement after holding a meeting with RMG factory owners at the secretariat.
Adding that a spike in the rate of coronavirus infections will make the ongoing situation even worse, the minister said, "The owners will have to make arrangements for transportation, accommodation and food for their workers, in accordance with the health regulations."
This is not the first time the government is facing allegations of lack of coordination over reopening factories amid the pandemic shutdown.
When Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi announced the reopening of RMG factories after a meeting with the owners in the beginning of April, Health Minister Zahid Maleque said despite heading the national committee to tackle coronavirus in Bangladesh, he was not part of that discussion.
Besides, the national advisory committee was not involved with the decision to reopen RMG factories on April 26. Even now, there is no coordination between the labour and health ministries on the matter of workers returning to the factories in Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj.
On Sunday, the minister said, "Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj are hotspots for the coronavirus. These districts also have a large number of garments factories. So, workers who have entered the three districts will not be allowed to leave, and other workers will longer be allowed to enter these districts.
"The police have been instructed to enforce the decision. A list of workers who entered the three districts [amid the shutdown] will be made. Deputy commissioners of other districts will be instructed to put anyone arriving from the three zones into mandatory quarantine."
However on May 1, in an order issued on behalf of Labour Secretary KM Ali Azam, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE) said RMG workers will be able to return to Dhaka by showing their factory identity cards to the authorities.
But the health ministry now says no workers will be allowed to enter Dhaka.
Meanwhile, the government's technical advisory committee claims to have no knowledge about the health minister's decision to reopen factories.
A member of the committee, Bangladesh Medical Association President Dr Mustafa Jalal Mohiuddin told The Business Standard, "The national technical advisory committee was not informed beforehand about the decision to reopen garments factories or shops.
"The technical advisory committee will learn about the health minister's directives given on Sunday after he holds a meeting with the committee."
Health Minister Zahid Maleque is scheduled to hold a meeting with the national technical advisory committee on Monday.
After Sunday's meeting with RMG owners, the minister said, "We must preserve both the lives and the livelihoods of the country's people. Continued shutdown of industries and factories, especially the RMG sector, could cause Bangladesh to lose its stake in the global market.
"On the other hand, not following strict health regulations could severely harm public health. So, everyone should help prevent damage to the economy by following the health regulations to the letter."
He continued, "The health ministry and the RMG leaders will jointly form a coordination committee. The committee will have many sub-committees. They will monitor whether health regulations are being followed in the RMG sector.
"Owners will form medical teams in every factory. Those teams will keep the national committee updated about the situation in factories. Dhaka, Narayanganj and Gazipur zones must be isolated. Until further notice, workers from these zones will not be allowed to move to other factories in different regions."
The minister further said, "The administrations of Dhaka, Narayanganj and other districts will keep a list of workers who journeyed there to work at garment and other factories. If anyone wants to leave those zones, he or she will be put under quarantine and their homes will be locked down. We have already sent out these instructions.
"The health ministry and RMG owners will take the initiative to increase testing facilities. Owners will also make separate arrangements for isolating their workers."
Giving more details, Zahid Maleque said, "I have asked them [RMG owners] to ensure that the workers get transportation, proper healthcare, and maintain adequate social distancing measures."
When asked whether the government will take any initiative to provide workers with transportation, the minister said, "We cannot take this initiative. It is up to the RMG owners to do so. We have advised them [owners] to be more careful regarding the workers' transportation, accommodation and food.
"If the infection spreads [among workers], we will not be able to accommodate them anywhere."
Commenting on the matter, Health Secretary Md Asadul Islam said, "Dhaka, Narayanganj and Gazipur are hotspots for the Covid-19 infection. Everyone must follow the health advisory to keep these zones isolated.
"Owners have been instructed to keep isolation centres and hospitals at the ready in case their workers get infected.
The health secretary added that the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) are sincere in tackling the crisis.
"They will take additional measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, because it is in their best interest to do so," he added.
Inspector general of Police Benazir Ahmed, BGMEA President Rubana Huq and BKMEA President AKM Selim Osman were present at Sunday's meeting among many others.