Pandemic cut earnings of 82pc apparel workers in April-May

Eighty-two per cent of garment workers in Bangladesh earned less in April and May compared to that in February because of the coronavirus pandemic – a finding that highlights the effect the crisis had on the incomes of the working class, according to a new study by Brac University.

The university's Centre for Entrepreneurship Development and James P Grant School of Public Health, in association with the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley recently carried out the rapid survey titled "The Impacts of Covid-19 on the Lives of Workers in the Garment Industry".

Co-author Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, also the executive director of the Institute for South Asia Studies and director of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, presented the findings at a webinar.

The survey was conducted between June 30 and July 13, and 1,057 garment workers participated through phone calls. The study focuses on workers from the garment sector who are particularly vulnerable to even a transitory shock to the sector, according to a press release.

According to the survey, 52 per cent of the respondents said they saved less in April and May compared to what they did in February.

Some 77 per cent of respondents said it was difficult to feed everyone in their household.

Some 69 per cent of the workers ate less meat, fish and eggs in May compared to that in February and 40 per cent consumed more pulses. Some 74 per cent took about the same amount of rice and wheat in the same period.

When asked how they coped during the period, 60 per cent of the workers said they did not keep any savings. Rather, they used their savings to buy food. Some 92 per cent said they reduced other expenses.

Of the 906 workers who were still employed in February 2020, 140 reported that their current employers had been laying off workers since March after the pandemic broke out in Bangladesh.

The average number of laid-off workers was 232. Seventy per cent of the workers said they were very worried or somewhat worried about the workers in their factory who lost jobs or might lose their jobs because of the pandemic.

Eighty-seven per cent of the respondents said their factories introduced new precautionary measures against the coronavirus, including giving workers new protective equipment (91 per cent), encouraging more hygiene measures (77 per cent), sending workers with symptoms home (66 per cent), and encouraging social distancing between workers (75 per cent).

Three in five workers still feel that they are likely or very likely to get infected by the virus at their workplaces and 29 per cent think that they will contract it from their homes.

Fifty-four per cent of the women and 45 per cent of the men would not be able to isolate at home if they catch the virus.

Ninety per cent said they did not receive any support from the government during the pandemic.

Expectations from the government include cash support (70 per cent), health care facilities (58 per cent), job security (53 per cent) and food rations (45 per cent).

The study recommended addressing the needs of creating more opportunity for mobility between various positions in the factory, particularly for women.

Based on the export earnings data, $4.6 billion was lost during the March to May period. But the gap had almost vanished by June, reviving hopes for a recovery of the sector, the press release said.

Noted economist Prof Wahiduddin Mahmud, a former caretaker government adviser, said garment factories in Bangladesh were born to export, making the situation in the country very unique.

Thus, the way the shocks have been absorbed by the garment sector is different compared to other parts of the world, he said in the press release.

Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said brands have to be made responsible for the adversities that Bangladesh faced due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

She said the sector took necessary initiatives to reopen factories gradually as per the demand of the economy.

Begum Monnujan Sufian, state minister for labour and employment, said the government has taken steps to resume operations at garment factories keeping the welfare of the workers in mind.

The steps include implementing the stimulus package for the garment sector, forming crisis committees, providing telemedicine services to workers and formulating health safety guidelines for workers in cooperation with International Labour Organization, she said.

Atonu Rabbani, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of economics at the University of Dhaka, said it was trickier to collect layoff data from workers. Rather, factories would be a more appropriate source.

Taslima Akhter, an activist, said workers were the most vulnerable during the pandemic.

"They are in constant fear of being laid off," she said, requesting the government and factory owners to take up the responsibility of ensuring welfare of the workers.

Prof Rahim B Talukdar, adviser of the CED-BRACU, and Syed Hasibuddin Hussain, project manager of the Mapped in Bangladesh project at the CED, also spoke. 

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