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‘Vulnerable’ garment workers in Bangladesh bear the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic

SINGAPORE — The coronavirus outbreak has left the garment sector in Bangladesh reeling — and thousands of factory workers bore the brunt of it as their livelihoods were abruptly taken from them. The garment industry has long been the lifeline of the economy, but as the pandemic ravaged the world, billions of dollars worth of orders were canceled as global retailers shut their doors and brands held back orders. Before the outbreak began, 22-year-old Mousumi, who declined to give her last name, started a new job at a garment factory in January after being unemployed since 2018. She made about 10,000 Bangladeshi taka ($118) each month until March, when factories around the country were ordered shut so as to slow the spread of the virus. When factories reopened with limited capacity in April, Mousumi said she was put on standby for three months. Then, on Aug. 1, she said she was fired. “They were only saying one thing: that they’re firing people because of coronavirus,” Mousumi said, according to CNBC’s translation of her remarks in Bengali. Dulali, also 22, lost her job at ABA Fashions Limited in April where she used to make up to 11,000 taka a month with overtime pay. She has struggled to secure employment since then. Like Mousumi, she too was told the pandemic was to be blamed. “They said because of coronavirus, there were no new orders coming and the factory owner was struggling to pay workers,” Dulali said, according to CNBC’s translation of her remarks in Bengali. She said her job search had been futile and that many others like her were also looking for work. Dulali is living with her eight-year-old daughter. “We are living under a lot of hardship right now,” she told CNBC. She said they owe about 16,000 taka in rent. They are now scraping by with her earnings of around 500 taka each month as a cook at her landlord’s place — a fraction of the pay she used to earn. CNBC spoke with six workers, including Mousumi and Dulali, by phone through the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation which works with various trade unions. Some of them are employed, while others say they have been looking for work since April or May. All of them spoke about the financial hardship they face, including potential destitution, exacerbated by the pandemic’s crippling impact.

As the virus spread, many top retail brands canceled orders that were already in production. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) estimated the pandemic had an immediate impact on 1,150 factories that reported $3.18 billion worth of order cancellations. Between March and June this year, Bangladesh lost $4.9 billion worth of apparel compared to the same period in 2019, according to BGMEA. BGMEA told CNBC that in the last three to four months its member factories have reported 71,000 workers have been laid off. A spokesperson said that most factories have retrenched workers who were employed for less than a year.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest clothing exporter — behind only China, according to ratings agency Moody’s. The garment industry is a major source of export income for the country. Ready-made garments comprised 83% of Bangladesh’s total exports worth $33.67 billion in its 2019-2020 fiscal year, according to data posted by BGMEA. More than 4,600 garment factories in Bangladesh make shirts, T-shirts, jackets, sweaters, and trousers. The apparel are mostly shipped to Europe, the United States and Canada, to be sold by local retailers in those countries. Read from source….