Garment workers count days in fear and uncertainty

  • Sumon Mahmud, Senior Correspondent
    Published: 2020-03-31 16:58:43 BdST

The nationwide shutdown over the novel coronavirus has stirred up uncertainty in Bangladesh as garment workers spend their days in fear.

“I can’t sleep. Don’t know what to do,” said an anxious Aleya, a garment worker who arrived from Nilphamari. She feels that jobs in the garment industry will dry up -- the reason for her anxiety.

Even 10 days ago, Aleya and many other workers would walk to their workplaces in Rampura at 8am and return home in the evening. Sometimes they would buy food and other daily necessities on their way back home.

With the garment factories now shut, they have no work and, like others, their movement is restricted. Other workers seen on the streets of Malibagh, Rampura and Badda on Tuesday shared the same fear.

Aleya has been working at a garment factory in Malibagh since arriving in Dhaka around three years ago. Her factory shut down on Mar 24.

“I can’t say what to do. We can’t return to the village, how long can you live inside a room? Who knows when the factory will open? And whether I will have my old work back, maybe not.”

“How many days can I survive without a job, how can I stay in Dhaka without earnings.”

Aleya’s husband Abdur Rouf is a rickshaw-puller – both live in a tin-roofed house in Badda, a crowded neighbourhood in Dhaka.

Abdur Rouf’s earnings over the last seven days are next to nothing. Aleya said he earned just Tk 86 from his full-day work on Monday as the number of passengers plummeted due to the shutdown.

Monowara Begum, a sweater factory worker in West Malibagh, said: “The export orders that our factory used to receive have stopped coming. We don’t know whether I will get back my job even if the factory reopens, because the owners had already spoken of dismissals.”

Monowara, a widow, is mother of two. Her family runs on her earnings from the factory. She lives in a small room in Malibagh, where several other garment workers live beside her.

Speaking to, workers Kulsum Begum, Nasrin, Shefali expressed the same concern: how many more days to go without work?

On hearing the news that the holiday break may be extended, 28-year-old Shefali said, “If it’s extended our factory won’t open. For how many days are we going stay home like this? We can’t even go outside to take a walk. Police chase us away.”

“Yesterday there was an announcement outside our home ordering everyone to stay indoors.”

Most of the labours in the capital stay in slums or tin-roofed houses. They buy food from their daily wages. Coronavirus has put the underprivileged to the sword.

Nasrin works at a small factory in Malibagh’s Chowdhurypara.

“I can’t go back to the village, and the landlord said I won’t be able to live here without paying rent either. I pay my rents after getting monthly salary. I don’t know what will happen this month,” she said.

“Many landlords have forfeited this month’s rent. But ours have not. He said, no pardons, rent must be paid, but a little delay is fine. If the factory doesn’t open, if I have no job, I have no idea how I’ll pay the rent… I have lost sleep over the worries.”

On Tuesday, 250 bags of food were distributed among the poor in Malibagh’s Chowdhurypara. Women garment workers were queued up for the food. Many, however, did not get it despite lining up.

“We did not get (the food). It would’ve provided us two days’ resources. Bad luck, I guess,” one said.

The readymade garments industry is one of the key sectors of earning foreign currency in Bangladesh. More than 4,500 garments in the country rely on China for raw materials, clothing and other requisites. With the imports now suspended, the crisis is getting deeper every passing day.

A thread importer told, “I am in grave uncertainty. The raw materials we have in stock have almost been used up. So a huge crisis is definitely looming.”