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Bangladesh botches lockdown again, forces workers to cities amid deadly COVID wave

  • Kamal Talukdar and Faysal Atik, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2021-08-01 03:34:47 BdST

A young man, who declined to give his name, had taken up a job at United Apparels factory in Dhaka’s Postogola several months ago, and his newly married wife works at another nearby garment factory of Shovon Group.

The couple started for the capital from Natore at dawn on Saturday and took short autorickshaw trips or walked many miles, eventually arriving in Gabtoli around 3pm with the public transportation system closed amid the coronavirus lockdown.

They paid a total of Tk 3,000 to reach one end of the city. They would have to spend Tk 500 more for a rickshaw ride to Postola. Usually, a bus trip from Natore to Dhaka takes around five hours and costs around Tk 9,00 per head.

The newlyweds, appeared to be happy as the sufferings neared an end, took a selfie on the rickshaw.

“We were told from the factory that it will reopen on Aug 1, and we may return. It’s a fresh job and I have a new family. So I waited no more and returned immediately,” said Rakib.

“We had thought factories won’t reopen before Aug 5. But they have suddenly reopened, but public transportation is still shut down, and thus all the sufferings. If I would not have been here, someone else would take my place. Would I have the job then?”

“The government makes many announcements. But only we know what happens inside a garment factory,” said his wife, who also declined to give a name. 

Passengers leave a ferry docked at the Shimulia terminal in Munshiganj on Saturday, July 31, 2021. Masses of people are headed to Dhaka since the government announced that factories would reopen. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

Passengers leave a ferry docked at the Shimulia terminal in Munshiganj on Saturday, July 31, 2021. Masses of people are headed to Dhaka since the government announced that factories would reopen. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

Workers of export-oriented industries thronged the ferries and highways to reach Dhaka, Narayanganj, Savar, Gazipur or Tongi on Saturday after the government announced on Friday night that the export-oriented factories will be allowed to resume production amid the coronavirus lockdown on Sunday.

There was no plan on how to transport the workers to the cities from their home villages or towns, where they had gone to celebrate Eid-ul-Azha and spend the period of lockdown with their families.

After seeing their sufferings throughout the day, the authorities finally allowed bus and launch operators to resume services.

But by that time thousands of men and women, many with children, exhausted after crossing hundreds of kilometres, sometimes on foot, flooded into the capital through Gabtoli and Babubazar, among other entrances of the city. They were irritated for paying four to five times the usual fares.

The police have set up check-posts in Dhaka to control public movement in the lockdown, but they stood to reason and let the workers pass.

Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, said the workers would not lose their job if they fail to join work in the lockdown, but many factories reportedly asked their workers to return via mobile phone.

Many of the workers returned fearing that an absence would affect their career. “There is no point in blaming the owners. My salary won’t be cut but I’ll lose priority in the job. We must return to our jobs. We wouldn’t have to suffer so much if the public transports were allowed,” said Siddiqur Rahman, a worker of Gazipur’s OneGroup.

He arrived at Paturia docks from Kushtia in the morning by paying Tk 500 instead of the usual fare of Tk 60 for a ride on a pickup truck. After failing to get a direct ride to Gazipur, he then paid Tk 600 in place of Tk 45 to reach Savar’s Hemayetpur from the docks by an autorickshaw. And finally he walked his way to Gabtoli from Savar.

“The office did not rush me back. But many of my colleagues came back. How could I sit idle? The office will not let us off without saying anything. If I came back late they would say, ‘They (other workers) were able to return, why couldn’t you?’”

Rubel, who gave a single name, was more worried about the rejoining as he works at Universal Fashions in Narayanganj’s Adamjee EPZ as an electrician, and he needed to   be at his workplace earlier than anybody else to prepare the machines for operations.

He and another worker paid Tk 2,000 each to travel from Pabna to Gabtoli by an autorickshaw. The police did not interrupt their journey.

BY WHATEVER MEANS, AT ANY COST

Masud Rana travelled to Dhaka from Tangail’s Bhuapur along with his wife and four others of the family, starting off at 9am and reaching Gazipur’s Chandra by 3pm on a microbus that charged Tk 500 for each passenger. They reached the city on an auto-rickshaw.

A worker at Adamjee EPZ, Rana declined to name his factory. He said his office announced the Aug 1 reopening but did not urge anyone to return. Yet there was no guarantee that he would not be dismissed on the account of a delayed return.

Scores of people were seen entering Dhaka across Babubazar Bridge in the morning, many of them carrying large bags on their shoulders.

Rajib, who works at a factory in Mirpur and identified himself with a single name, said he reached Dhaka from Madaripur’s Kalkini taking different routes and breaking his trip into several modes of transport.

Kotwali Police OC Mizanur Rahman said more people were entering Dhaka through Babubazar Bridge compared to other days and the police were taking action against anyone failing to present proper reasons to do so.

Keraniganj Police OC AKM Abul Kalam Azad told bdnews24.com people without garment factory worker ID cards were being barred from entering Dhaka.

Workers from the southern parts of the country began entering Dhaka through Gulistan, Babubazar Bridge, Hatkhola in the afternoon.

Some resorted to hiring horse-drawn carriages to reach their destinations.

Kalim Uddin Ahmed and his family members, who arrived from Barishal, were displeased over the decision to reopen the factories before the lockdown was lifted.

“We had to go through a lot of trouble to reach Shimulia, then we took a microbus to Gulistan. Now we are travelling on a cart drenched in the rain. Why is that? If there’s no more lockdown, then lift it,” his wife Rahima Begum said.

The rickshaw fare from Gulistan to Rampura was around Tk 200 to Tk 250, which is less than Tk 150 in normal days, while booking a cart costs Tk 500. Those who were unable to pay such fares had to travel on foot.

It took Marium Begum, a worker at a garment factory in Ashulia, 10 hours to return to Dhaka from Patuakhali.

“I had to pay additional fares - Tk 900 in place of Tk 300. There were people everywhere. Our sufferings have no end.”

“The government imposed the lockdown, and now they are saying we have to come to work. How is that? How are people supposed to arrive? Will they fly like fairies?”

WHAT THE OWNERS SAY

In the first round of coronavirus lockdown last year, thousands of workers walked over 100 kilometres or crammed goods transports to return to work after confusion arose over whether the factories can remain open.

The government had allowed factories to operate during the lockdowns later, but ordered them shut when the restrictions were reimposed on Jul 23.

Owners in the readymade garment industry, concerned about the timely delivery of exports during a busy season, called for these lockdown rules to be relaxed but the government disagreed.

It finally gave in to pressure from business leaders, especially those of the readymade garment industry that contributes more than 80 percent to Bangladesh’s exports.

Around 35 to 40 percent of annual exports are made during this period, according to garment industry entrepreneurs.

“The orders from Western markets for the winter season and Christmas are almost ready for shipment. However, the products will go unsold unless they are delivered soon,” BGMEA Vice-President Shahidullah Azim said last week.  

As the workers began returning after the government heeded to the owners, BGMEA President Faruque apparently skirted any responsibility, saying no factory will sack a worker if they fail to rejoin in the lockdown.

“We’d wanted to complete the emergency exports with the workers who live near the factories. But those staying in home villages outside Dhaka also wanted to resume work.

 “In truth, the workers don’t want to sit back at home, because they can earn some extra money for doing overtime on top of monthly wages if they work.”

Faruque thanked the government for allowing buses and launches to resume services.

But workers’ leaders said the decision to reopen the factories in the lockdown put the workers’ job and health at great risk.   

“Hundreds of thousands of workers have been given only one day to return to work. They are suffering by paying extra fares to travel amid the shutdown of the public transportation system,” Garments Sramik Front said in a statement.