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Report: RMG workers lost $500m in wages during the pandemic

  • Published at 06:56 pm April 29th, 2021
RMG worker Dhaka
A woman at work in a garment factory in Dhaka Dhaka Tribune

Only large registered factories availed stimulus package to disburse wages

Apparel workers lost an estimated $502 million in wages during the March-May 2020 period, an aggregate  drop of nearly 35%, with scores of workers, including pregnant and aged women, getting terminated or laid off without compensation.

This was revealed during a virtual report launching on Thursday, titled "The Weakest Link in the Global Supply Chain: How the Pandemic is Affecting Bangladesh's Garment Workers."

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Centre for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in support of UNDP Business and Human Rights in Asia (B+HR Asia), the UNDP Bangladesh Country Office, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency conducted the study.

The study also revealed that 82% of interviewed workers' income in April-May 2020 had declined from February 2020, 77% reported difficulty of feeding all household members, while 69% were forced to eat less protein-intensive foods during the period.

By June the same year, export orders had fallen by 40-45% compared to 2019. Bangladesh lost $724 million in apparel exports to the United States until then.

Also Read: Apparel workers are getting rehired but at lower pay

Workers also faced critical challenges to their mental health and overall emotional wellbeing, worried about both the pandemic and their financial futures- providing for their families, feeding them, and caring for their children.

The research report also shows a large number of workers were terminated or laid off, without compensation or their consent. Moreover, the Labour Act requires to work continuously for one year in order to get compensation for lay off and because of this legal bar, 20% of the laid off workers are being left without any kind of compensation

It also said that only larger, registered readymade garment (RMG) factories were able to avail the government's stimulus package to cover the wage payments of their workers.

“Over the last four decades the RMG sector has been generating 4.4 million jobs with outstanding contribution in women empowerment, but the ongoing pandemic has disproportionately impacted the weakest link in the entire global RMG supply chain- the workers,” said Sudipto Mukerjee, UNDP resident representative of Bangladesh.

Experts attend a virtual report launching ceremony on the state of Bangladeshi apparel workers. on Thursday, April 29, 2021

The government should take immediate steps to ensure that the impact of the latest lockdown is minimal on garment workers, said Sanchita Saxena, director of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Centre for Bangladesh Studies.

Although the government mandated that furloughed workers be paid 65% of their salary for the first three months of the pandemic, union representatives claimed that many workers did not get paid as promised.

Labour and Employment Secretary KM Abdus Salam and Member of Bangladesh Human Rights Commission Kamal Uddin Ahmed sought specific recommendations on how brand, supplier, consumer, international agencies as well as the government should jointly tackle the disruption and safeguard the workers.

“There is no social security net, unemployment insurance or job security for the 4.4 million RMG workers. This is the responsibility of governments, brands, suppliers as well as global consumers to ensure these safety tools for the workers,” said Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity.

No measures have been taken to safeguard the workers who have lost their jobs, she added.

BGMEA President Faruque Hassan on the other hand thanked the government, EU and Germany for drafting a social safety net for RMG workers to be implemented in the days to come.

"With support from the government, we have taken a number of steps in ensuring the safety of garments works during the Covid-19 pandemic including the establishment of isolation centres, PCR lab among others," he added.

"The pandemic has revealed the vulnerabilities of many groups, and Bangladesh's workers in the readymade garment sector bore the disproportionate burden. While the scale of the pandemic took everyone by surprise, lessons must be learned from the experience so that the effect of Bangladesh's second lockdown, now underway, causes the least harm to those who suffered the most the last time, said Salil Tripathi, IHRB's senior adviser – global issues, and the report's co-author.