PEOPLE in economic hardship are most likely to bear the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak. The fears are not unfounded as many workers in China, Itally, the United States and Australia have already lost their jobs. Many countries have already declared economic support and hardship allowance for citizens with an emphasis on people in poverty. It is alarming that the Bangladesh government has so far done very little to address the need of the working class people. Despite repeated appeal from labour organisations, the government and industry owners chose to keep production lines open. In the informal sector, construction companies have suspended works and closed sites but mostly have not paid workers their dues. The first coronavirus infection was confirmed on March 8 and a plan for labour force should have already been in place. Instead, the authorities concerned chose to keep factories open and keep the industrial sector outside the purview of the general holiday that the government announced.
Most of the preventive measures against COVID-19 — social distancing, frequent hand-washing and staying at home — are difficult for daily wage labourers or apparel workers unless the government provides socio-economic protection for their survival. A slowdown in business activities could hit hard the vulnerable groups. In the likelihood that the urban poor would return to their rural homes in the event of a job crisis, the government needs to have relief plans to prevent starvation. The rush of people to journey home by train and bus on Tuesday points to this point. A handful of apparel units have closed without workers being paid on the grounds that international retailers are cancelling orders. Work order cancellations by retailers because of the coronavirus pandemic have so far cost the Bangladesh apparel sector $1.98 billion. Labour organisations and exporters’ association asked the government to provide financial support for workers in the sector so that their economic survival is not constrained. The government plans have so far been socially exclusive for lack of measures to address concerns of the urban poor and working population.
It is commendable that the prime minister on Wednesday declared food rations and debt relief for people in poverty. The authorities concerned must also take steps, keeping to World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation guidelines, for the industrial sector, especially the apparel sector. In the case of factory closure, workers should be given paid leave. The government and exporters must negotiate with international retailers so that the national economy is not unfairly burdened.
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