In popular imagination, particularly the one portrayed and represented in the mainstream media excludes the majority section of our youth ─ migrant labour and apparel workers. Similar exclusion is evidenced in the government response to COVID-19 outbreak writes Nahid Riyasad
IN POPULAR imagination, particularly the one portrayed and represented in the mainstream media excludes the majority section of our youth ─ migrant labour and apparel workers. Similar exclusion is evidenced in the government response to COVID-19 outbreak which, as of April 11, has killed 30 and infected 482 people in Bangladesh. The government has declared all educational institutions closed on March 16 and announced a general holiday, the Bangladesh version of lock-down, which is now stretched to April 25 from March 26. However, the concerns of the working class youth sadly remain unaddressed.
The COVID-19 pandemic brings another opportunity to examine how exclusionary the idea of youth is ─ to the state, to the government. The discussion will also shed light on how the ruling mechanism is deliberately putting the ‘working’ youth at harm to keep the wheels of the economy running, even during an epidemic.
The lackluster handling of the influx of the migrant workers at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport by the authorities, right before the outbreak in Bangladesh, created scope for stigamtisig the migrant labourers as the carrier of COVID-19. This migrant workers, who are now harassed, prevented from entering their villages, or labelled as the carriers of ‘misfortune’, has added USD 16.41 billion to our economy in the last year and a large portion of them fall under the government definition of youth, aged between 18-35 years.
Ready-made garment industry is one of the major export earning sources for Bangladesh that contributed USD 33 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal year to the economy, roughly 14 per cent of the national GDP. The industry is run by a workforce of 4.1 million people, most of whom are youth. However, neither the government, not the industry owners thought of workers’ health-safety in the time of an epidemic.
On March 29, 2020, Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, in a statement, asked the government to protect migrant workers’ rights during the pandemic, ensure their access to information and related services at home and at the destination countries. The statement requested the expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment ministry to provide migrants with health and financial support through Bangladesh embassies abroad. A small number of migrants have returned to Bangladesh which caused widespread panic among citizens, as observed in different social media platforms, assuming they have spread the virus in Bangladesh.
‘We observe that in social media, the government and citizens are spreading rumours that it is the migrants who are responsible for bringing the corona virus from abroad, which is not true. Unfortunately, people gave in to such rumours and returnee migrants are being humiliated and physically assaulted in many parts of Bangladesh,’ said the statement.
Media reports showed that returnee migrant workers, who were instructed to self-quarantine themselves, were roaming around their vicinity and taking part in social gatherings and functions. This is also a two-dimensional failure of the concerned authorities.
The first, it was the government and concerned authorities’ responsibility to carefully identify returnees at the airport with symptoms who are coming from COVID-19 affected countries. They have miserably failed to do so as media reports showed how the major airport was operating with three thermal scanners, two of which were not functioning properly in the early days of outbreak.
Moreover, returnees have objected that they were released without any questions and only required to fill up a form that testifies they do not have fever or any symptoms of COVID-19. In some cases, they were released for exchange of money.
Secondly, the government has failed to come-up with a context specific protocol for home quarantine. In the cultural context of Bangladesh, public health experts have suggested, it will be rather difficult to enforce home quarantine. Therefore, a strict protocol for both institutional and home quarantine should have been in place from the very beginning to avoid the stigmatisation of the returnee Bangladeshis.
Videos of people hanging piece of red cloth on homes of migrant workers leading to vandalising migrant workers home went viral on social media. Besides these drastic actions, we have also seen how curious locals have gathered around homes of migrants who have self-quarantined themselves and law enforces failing to handle the crowd. In these cases, authorities’ inability to communicate properly with the citizens are to be noted.
Early planning could have prevented these unwanted situations encountered by migrant workers. Early planning could have saved apparel workers from the ordeals they are going through.
The first announcement of holiday made on March 24 did not have any directive on the temporary closure of factories, Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers Exporters Association on the other hand said, they are not authorised to declare factories closed. On March 28, in Ashulia and Gazipur industrial zones protested against the management’s reckless decision to keep the factory open. In the face of public criticism and workers protest, factories were declared closed until April 3. In the meantime, the government has extended the general holiday from April 3 to April 14, again without mentioning anything about the apparel industry. Neither BGMEA, nor the government cared to protect the health safety of the workers. Their lives are expendable.
Since early march the BGMEA’s concerns revolved around losing order of international retailers. In the website of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association, it is shown that USD 3.12 billion export orders have been cancelled. Its president, Rubana Huq, made a video urging the foreign buyers to not cancel their orders, which netizens saw as a move to bag compensation package from the government.
On March 25, prime minister announced a Tk 5000 crore package for all export-oriented industry to help pay the workers’ salary. Later it was revealed that the amount is in fact a two per cent interest soft-loan to the factories but media reports said that the owners’ associations expected a bailout package, not a loan.
On April 27, Rubana Huq joined an online talk show for DW, where, Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity’s president Taslima Akhter was also present. In that talk show, Rubana, at least twice, deliberately, did not specifically answer a very important question ─ why a USD 40-billion-dollar industry, after four decades in business and billions of government incentives, does not have an emergency fund and why it cannot sustain itself and why it needs to beg taxpayers’ money every time a slightly inconvenience happens?
In the back drop of this heightened debate on the nature of stimulus package, what all authorities concerned ‘forgot’ was the workers. On April 5, the country saw how the workers, in fear of losing job and salary, walked back to their workplace. Hundreds of thousands of apparel workers walked down, staying close to one another, mile after mile, riding in between locally running small transports to travel short distances amidst a public holiday.
The apparel association late at that night requested the owners to keep the units closed while the knitwear association in the dead of night ordered the closure of the units. But by then, thousands of workers have either reached their destinations or have been stranded on the road. All the decision making authorities of the apparel sector was well aware of the holidays and extensions but they choose to not give any clear cut directions to the member factories. Now, would it be wrong to say, as the labour organisers’ have said, profit is more dear to the industry owners than the workers’ health safety?
Meanwhile, on April 9, Sultana Begum, 35, an apparel industry worker hailed from Narsingdi died with COVID-19 symptoms. She returned from her workplace Narayanganj when the district was locked down and died on her way to a local doctor. Her husband’s family refused to give her a funeral in fear of contagion and her body was left on a boat on the river Meghna at her aged father’s custody. On April 6, Jihadul Islam, 22, another RMG sector worker died with similar symptoms in Sirajganj. Another apparel sector worker, 32, who returned from Narayanganj died with COVID-19 symptoms in Patuakhali. On April 8, a RMG sector worker was tested positive in Chittagong with COVID-19. This list is perhaps much longer as their deaths or illness mostly go unaccounted for.
In this time of grave crisis, as we reach the fourth stage of transmission of COVID-19, forgetting the working class youth, we are forgetting the majority of our labour force. It is time, the government as well as the conscientious section of the society, must reconsidered its notion of ‘youth’ that excludes the working class. These workers are our youth too.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth.
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