The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has asked its members to halt all forms of recruitment at garment factories across the country following a meeting on Thursday.
The coordination meeting discussed the overall situation of the sector following the Covid-19 pandemic, war-related economic crisis, the ongoing workers' protest and other issues.
BGMEA President Faruque Hassan chaired the meeting and details of the decisions were later conveyed to member garment owners through an official letter.
The decision will be effective for all member factories of the BGMEA and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA).
However, those concerned with the sector said normally up to 15% of workers and officials change factories every month with more benefits. They feel that such a decision to stop hiring may put pressure on factories that have lost workers.
In the midst of recent turmoil among garment workers, Tusuka Fashions factory was vandalised on Thursday. Its owner believes the decision to halt new hires is impractical.
Arshad Jamal Dipu, Tusuka Fashions chairman and a BGMEA director, explained to The Business Standard that the suspension of recruitment aims to deter workers involved in recent acts of vandalism from seeking employment in new factories.
He, however, acknowledged the difficulty in implementing a complete halt to new hires as the need for workers may override the restriction.
Stressing the importance of formal processes, he highlighted the existence of factory databases and service books, emphasising the necessity for accurate updates when workers leave.
He noted that many factories currently lack up-to-date databases.
In reaction to the decision, Mohammad Hatem, executive president of the BKMEA, noted that workers might contemplate leaving one factory to join another during periods of unrest or for various reasons. "The decision to halt recruitment is aimed at preventing such job transitions."
Hatem said sudden stop of work is considered a crime under the Labour Act. "Old factories suffer if workers leave their place and join new ones."
According to the BGMEA letter, "From now on, it is mandatory for every garment factory to display a banner at its entrance gate bearing the words 'No recruitment'."
SM Mannan Kochi, senior vice president of BGMEA told TBS, "Factory owners have asked BGMEA to stop recruitment, that is why the association took the decision. There will be no new recruitment till the situation [workers protest] cools down.
"There is a lack of work orders in some factories. And there is a lack of workers in factories which have orders. Either workers are not coming to work, or they are refusing to work even after coming to the factory. So, the factory is incurring a loss due to lack of production, but they are having to pay the workers' salaries as well.
"That is why factory owners do not want to keep the factories open, nor do they want to spend more money on hiring people," he added.
Regarding global brands pledging to share the burden of the minimum wage hike, SM Mannan Kochi said the reality is different.
"Only 10% of buyers are willing to pay the raised price of products, the rest are not," he said adding, "Half of the factory owners cannot afford to pay the new minimum wage of Tk12,500."
The decision was taken to reduce loss, it was not the intention of the owners to threaten the workers through this step of halting recruitment, said the BGMEA senior vice-president.
However, the labour leaders do not agree with such a statement of the owners.
Nazma Akter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation told TBS, "Halting employment or closing factories is not a solution. How will their factory run if recruitment is stopped?"
She thinks the decision has been taken for the purpose of scaring the workers. "The financial loss incurred by the factory owners by keeping the factory closed for one day is higher than what they would have to pay to increase the salary."
This labour leader said the owners have the opportunity to go to the upper level, but there is no one to listen to the workers.
The BGMEA letter sent to factory owners also states, "In instances where factories have experienced fire, theft, or violence, they are required to file a case at the nearby police station. This should include supporting evidence such as photos and video footage. If the identities of the accused individuals are unknown, they may be listed as unknown assailants."
"For factories where workers refrain from working, leave the premises or go beyond limits, the owners are instructed to adhere to Section 13(1) of the Bangladesh Labour Act, which mandates the closure of such garment factories, which means no work, no pay."
Regarding the closure under Article 13/1 of the labour law, SM Mannan Kochi said, "Owners don't want to accept losses on both sides [lack of production, paying workers' salaries]. That is why they will keep the factory closed by announcing a holiday and not pay the workers for those days [when workers boycott work]."
He said, on Thursday, no work was done in more than 100 factories in some parts of Ashulia and Gazipur.
There have been ongoing protests by RMG workers in parts of the country following the announcement of the new minimum wage on 7 November.
The Minimum Wage Board for the readymade garments sector finalised the increase of RMG workers' minimum wage to Tk12,500 from Tk8,000, an increase of 56% on 8 November.
RMG workers rejected this decision and demanded reforming the Minimum Wage Board to increase their salary further.
The garments sector — the jewel in Bangladesh's export crown, with exports reaching over $46.99 billion in the fiscal year 2023 — was ravaged by protests in recent weeks centring on a hike in the minimum wage.
On 30 October, at least two people were killed and about 40 injured in massive clashes between police and ready-made garment workers in several industrial areas in Ashulia, Savar, and Gazipur.
Following the weeklong clashes, the factory owners on 1 November agreed to pay higher minimum wages to garment workers than Tk10,400, which they proposed earlier.