Cancelled orders, unpaid wages send workers reeling . . .
Workers in Bangladesh’s garment factories, which account for some 84 per cent of the country’s exports, organized street protests this week despite a nationwide lockdown imposed at the end of last month. Protesters numbering in the thousands complained of unpaid wages and broken promises from factory management and the government as they staged sit-ins and blocked roads. The protests came after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s order last week to temporarily close all garment factories not producing personal protection equipment. Even before the order, as apparel brands and retailers around the world cancelled orders, many factories had already suspended operations, leading to widespread layoffs in an industry that employed over four million workers.
Inadequate, unpopular government response . . .
Bangladesh’s government has asked garment factory owners not to sack workers, announcing a US$588-million package to help the export sector keep workers on the payroll. Labour and industry leaders, however, say that the measure is inadequate. In addition to non-compliance, with many workers let go, the fund is likely to run out in the coming weeks. Unlike other South Asian countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh’s COVID-19 response does not include direct cash transfers. Short on solutions, unions and human rights activists have turned to major Western buyers in hopes that brands will provide some financial support. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi diaspora communities in North America have organized their own relief efforts, sending food and medical supplies through grassroots organizations.
Impending crisis and Canada’s role . . .
As workers defy lockdown orders and take to the streets en masse, a different storm is brewing. April 17 marks the 6th day in a row that Bangladesh recorded triple-digit growth in confirmed COVID-19 cases. Two weeks ago, the country had less than 100 cases; the figure now stands at 1,838. In a crude illustration of the dilemma of poverty and public health, the pandemic has forced many to contend with a choice between starvation and infection. The predicament faced by Bangladeshi garment workers, most of whom are young women with few alternative options for employment, raises important questions of priority and implementation for Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, which seeks to eradicate poverty through promoting gender equality.