Ravaged by job loss, pay cut

Image: Collected
Thousands of workers in the readymade garment sector have been laid off since this past year, despite factory owners getting a Tk 8,000 crore stimulus packagefrom the federal government to pay their salaries through the pandemic.

An estimate by Bangladesh Centre for Workers' Solidarity (BCWS) puts the amount of personnel who lost their jobs in one year, till April, at at least 300,000.

Many received no earnings and severance pay and those who retained their jobs, had to have a significant pay cut.

Workers suffered a 35 percent pay cut during the shutdown this past year, according to an estimate of a recently available report and BCWS.

The report titled "The Weakest Link in the Global Supply Chain: The way the Pandemic has effects on Bangladesh's Garment Workers", launched on Thursday, revealed that RMG factories have sacked or furloughed typically ten percent of their workers and could let go an additional 35 percent of their staff later on if the current situation -- fewer orders, price reductions on new orders, and delayed payments -- will not improve.

It also referred to data from a survey by the Centre for Global Workers' Rights last year that found 72.4 percent of furloughed personnel did not obtain due income and 80.4 percent of let go workers did not obtain severance pay.

The report was presented by the Institute for Human Rights and Business and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Centre for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, with support from UNDP Bangladesh and the Swedish government.


Many of these staff remain unemployed or are working as day labourers as RMG factories are in present barely recruiting workers.

This correspondent spoke to 35 personnel and former workers of varied factories in Dhaka and Narayanganj, who have suffered job loss or income cuts since the pandemic struck last year.

All 35 staff said that they didn't receive full wages during last year's shutdown when their factories were closed.

Shahana (not her real name), a worker at a factory in Narayanganj, said, "I was paid 50 percent of my earnings for three months this past year when the factory was closed as a result of national shutdown. Some senior staff protested against this decision and were summarily sacked."

She added that overtime has been decrease too.

"I i did so more than 200 hours of overtime monthly in 2019. Now, I cannot do any overtime because of cancellation of orders."

She estimated that she earned around Tk 17,000-18,000 monthly, including bonus and overtime, in 2019.

"Now, I can earn only Tk 10,000 monthly in total," she added.

Other personnel echoed her experience, saying they received between 50 to 65 percent of their salaries during the months of the shutdown this past year and have been earning around 50 percent less than what they made in 2019 with overtime and benefits.

Such significant cuts with their income have had a significantly detrimental effect on their living conditions.

Roksana, working at a factory in Savar, used to live with her husband -- an auto-rickshaw driver -- and two children in a rented apartment nearby. She had to let it go in January this season as they cannot afford to reside in Savar anymore on her behalf nearly-halved earnings of Tk 10,000.

Her husband and two children had to come back to the village searching for work while she actually is living in a shared room with other workers.

"I can hardly bear my family's expenses," Roksana said, adding, "The most unfortunate fact is that with this income I don't believe I will be in a position to pay for my children's schools any more if my husband cannot get yourself a decent job, as I also need to send money to my elderly parents."

Sakina, another worker who works at a factory in Ashulia, said, "The factory owners have reduced our earnings nonetheless they don't consider that our house rent and the price tag on commodities have not decreased."

For her, it has meant sacrificing food and nutrition for her family.

"With this income, we are able to hardly afford rice, fish, and vegetables. I have forgotten the taste of beef, mutton, and chicken. We can not even afford milk and fruits for our children."

FACTORY OWNERS, BRANDS 'INDIFFERENT'

Labour leader and BCWS Executive Director Kalpona Akter said, "In most cases, very rich industrialists who pays their workers for months without running their factories received the stimulus package last year. Small and medium scale factories who are mostly sub-contractors for bigger factories didn't get any assistance and had to close their businesses or minimise their production costs."

Kalpona also accused buyers of not acting responsibly.

"According to our estimation, more than 50 percent of suppliers had to accept orders below average cost and several brands cancelled orders last year. The apathy of brands and industrialists' indifference towards workers' rights resulted in mass layoff of personnel and massive earnings cuts in this sector," she said.

Also on the line are workers' salaries and Eid bonus prior to the festival.

Begum Shamsunnahar Bhuiyan MP, executive president of Mahila Sramik League and a member of the parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Labour and Employment, said, "We have already asked the industrialists to pay salaries and festival bonuses by May 10. They are again demanding yet another Tk 10,000 crore stimulus package from the government to pay the earnings and festival bonus.

"I have suggested the federal government form a database of RMG staff and this time to pay the funds right to the workers who lost their jobs and who are in need."

Arshad Jamal, a director of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said, "It really is true that mostly large factories benefitted from the stimulus package last year as its disbursement is determined by export quantity and bank-client relationship."

Arshad claimed as large-scale factories employ the majority of the four million RMG personnel in the united states, "layoffs by small and medium-scale factories did not have any significant effect on the industry".

Regarding BGMEA's repeated demand for another stimulus package, Arshad said, "Our buyers still consider us an importing sourcing country as a result of financial collapse in neighbouring countries. So, we have to keep our industry alive for a better future."

"Last year, we got this stimulus package in two phases as loans with at first two percent and 4.5 percent interest for the second phase which incurred additional expenditure for us. Nevertheless, we are yet to recuperate from pandemic-inflicted losses and the Covid-19 situation may worsen this season," he added.

"We are also creating a complete database of all the RMG workers to make sure that funds from the stimulus package reach the proper person."

NO EFFECTIVE COVID-19 PRECAUTIONS

Workers said they are also worried sick about the worsening Covid-19 situation because they cannot hope for medical attention from their employers if they are infected.

This time around, garments and other factories have been told they are able to stay open through the lockdown from April 14.

The workers also alleged that most factories didn't take any effective measures to ensure hygiene rules and social distancing, and did not arrange workers' transportation to and from the factory through the ongoing lockdown despite government's instructions regarding this.

Shumon, a worker of a factory in Savar, said, "Our factory authorities installed hand-washing booths and provided hand sanitisers and masks in the beginning. Now, almost all of the workers usually do not care about maintaining hygiene and our bosses also do not be concerned about it. Maintaining social distancing is impossible in the factory."

Roksana concurred, saying, "Each day I go to the factory with 15 of my colleagues crammed in a tiny laguna as there is absolutely no other public transport currently. How do we maintain hygiene and social distance?"

Many workers said they do not even inform their supervisors about sickness because they tend to be sanctioned with 14 days leave without payment.

Azahar*, a worker from Ashulia, said, "One of my colleagues informed the factory physician about his fever. He was prescribed a Covid-19 ensure that you some medicines which cost around Tk 2,000.

"He could not spend the money for ensure that you medicines and joined work with fever. The next day, he was given 2 weeks of leave without pay."

Azahar said workers cannot bear these costs and the happen to be Dhaka on the current income, or even to go unpaid for such a long time.

Shumon said, "At present, our biggest fear is losing our job. If we get badly infected, there is absolutely no doubt that people shall lose our job.

"And if we lose our job, we shall not get any job in the near future as none of the factories are taking new workers."

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