Growing number of Bangladeshi garment workers infected with COVID-19

Growing number of Bangladeshi garment workers infected with COVID-19

Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) reported  yesterday that a total 23,870 people nationally had been infected with  COVID-19 and that the death toll had reached 349 since the highly  contagious infection hit the country. Little more than 185,000 people  have been tested in Bangladesh, which has a population of 160 million.  Somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 people are being tested each day, less  than the 10,000 minimum recommended by medical experts.

The Bangladeshi media, citing a survey by the Bangladesh Center of  Workers Solidarity, recently reported that 96 workers have been  infected. This includes 26 workers from Narayanganj, 24 in Savar, 14 in  Gazipur, 7 from Ashulia, 6 from Dhaka and the rest from other areas. Ten  garment workers and one factory official are reported to have died from  confirmed infections or after exhibiting coronavirus-like symptoms.

While the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association  (BGMEA) rejected the survey figures, claiming that there were only 20  infections among factory employees, the New Age newspaper,  citing Industrial Police of Bangladesh data, said 90 workers had tested  positive—81 from garment factories and the remaining nine from other  plants.

Many of these workers have been infected since the government allowed  the reopening of garment facilities on April 26, even as the pandemic  was escalating beyond the control of health authorities.

While thousands of low-paid workers responded to company  announcements that the plants were reopening, the national lockdown of  public and private office workplaces remains in place until May 30.  Shopping malls are only allowed to be open for a few hours each day. One  employee, Mohammad Moshiur told Reuters that he had to keep working,  adding: “Do you think I would have gone to work today if I had money? Of  course not.”

Factory owners claim that they have provided safe and improved  working conditions but the media has cited comments from workers warning  that they remain vulnerable to the virus. The Daily Observer  reported workers complaining that “most factory owners are not providing  enough masks and sanitiser and that workers have to buy them at their  own cost.”

Three anonymous government inspectors told Reuters that the machine  layouts in many plants made it difficult to keep workers apart. One  worker told the news agency that her “factory was cleaner but was just  as crowded as before the epidemic.” She said: “I’m scared. But sitting  at home won’t feed my child or pay my rent. We are poor people.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has attempted to justify her  government’s dangerous reopening of plants by invoking the approaching  end of the Ramadan religious festival. “We can’t keep everything shut,”  she declared.

The Hasina government’s decision to allow factories to reopen has  nothing to do with Ramadan but is in response to the demands of  Bangladesh garment bosses and other export industry chiefs. It  corresponds with the brutal and medically unscientific “herd immunity”  policies being imposed on workers by governments around the world (see: “The murderous pseudoscience of ‘herd immunity’”).

In late March, Professor Dr Nasima Sultana, the Additional Director  General of Health Services declared that the government agency wanted  “to build immunity to the virus,” a policy that could result in tens of  thousands of workers dying.

Amid  rising working-class anger and concern about the lack of proper  COVID-19 safety measures, BGMEA director Faisal Samad said the peak  big-business group had established a crisis management team with hotline  phone numbers. Team members, he claimed, would immediately respond to  workers’ calls for safe conditions.

The Bangladeshi garment industry accounts for some 84 percent of the  country’s $US40 billion annual export earnings. In order to maintain  production and profits against global rivals, such as Vietnam, China and  Cambodia, industry chiefs are prepared to sacrifice the jobs and lives  of tens of thousands of workers. In an interview with the BBC, BGMEA  president Rubana Huq warned that “more than two million garment factory  workers [out of four million] might lose their jobs.”

Faced with job and pay cuts, withheld wages and religious festival  bonuses, and the danger of COVID-19, thousands of garment workers have  taken to the streets in daily protests.

On Saturday, around 1,500 workers from the Magpie Composite Textile  and Magpie Sweater plants in Ashulia rallied and then blocked the  Dhaka-Aricha highway to demand last month’s salaries and leave  allowances. Police attacked the demonstrators with batons and tear gas,  injuring five workers.

One worker told the Daily Star: “We were staging a sit-in  programme inside the factory as authorities have yet to pay our salary  for April, and last year’s yearly earning allowance.” Another worker  said: “We were prepared to accept 60 percent of our salary for April but  the factory owner has not yet paid that. We will starve if we don’t get  paid.” The average monthly wage of Bangladeshi garment workers is about  8,000 takas ($US95).

On May 16, the government, company owners and union leaders met and  agreed to the terms of a sell-out agreement. In violation of workers’  demands, the union bureaucrats backed a deal that would supposedly  result in the payment of outstanding bonuses in two phases—50 percent of  the basic wage before the religious festival and another 50 percent  after the festival. The unions involved in this betrayal were the  IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC) and the National Garment Workers  Federation.

Most of the garment workers’ strikes and protests have occurred in  large non-union plants, including those of the Ha-Meem Group, Envoy  Group and Islam Group, which is of concern to both the BGMEA and the  corporatist trade unions. The Ha-Meem Group has about 50,000 workers,  Envoy Group 21,000 and Islam Group 15,000.

In a direct appeal to employers, IBC Secretary General Salauddin  Shapon pointed out the union’s usefulness in suppressing strikes. “Most  of the factories that are facing unrest do not have trade unions,” he  said. “If those owners allowed trade unions, we would be able to  communicate with them,” he added, bewailing the fact that only 10  percent of Bangladeshi workers were affiliated with unions or labour  federations.

Last week, a member of the government’s National Technical Advisory  Committee on the coronavirus anonymously told the media: “We are in the  dark about the government’s capability of providing medical treatment to  COVID-19 patients.”

The comment came after health authorities revealed that three people  had tested positive in Kutupalong, one of many camps in Cox’s Bazar,  where about a million Rohingya asylum-seekers live—the world’s largest  refugee settlement. These camps are overcrowded and lack adequate  sanitary facilities. Dr Shamim Jahan, health director of Save the  Children in Bangladesh, warned: “We are looking at the very real  prospect that thousands of people could die from COVID-19.”

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