APPAREL workers have been forced to work for the most part of the general holiday ordered as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 as owners chose to keep the factories open, putting the health and lives of workers at risk. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association leaders kept the factories open giving the excuse of possible losses in the sector from orders being cancelled and shipment being delayed. Workers kept working in fear of the termination of their job. Labour organisations have, meanwhile, reported a higher risk of infection among the workers in the sector. Even the local administration in industrial areas has warned the government against keeping the factories open, fearing a rapid spread of infection. The association’s president, in this context, says that the total number of infected workers in the sector is 346, with only 144 cases still being active. But the figure appears to be too low considering the heightened infection situation.
Public health experts worry that the association may have misled policy-makers. Experts and labour leaders say that the infection rate is dependent on the number of tests run on the workers. Most of the workers have little to no access to COVID-19 tests. The association has set up a facility in Gazipur that can run 180 tests a day. One dedicated facility for about four million workers is highly inadequate. On April 26, when export-oriented industries were allowed to reopen, they were asked to do so by enforcing and adhering to the health guidelines. But breaches were routinely reported although the association says that industrial units maintain the health guidelines. The roads and bridges minister on May 2, however, said that owners were running apparel factories in violation of health guidelines. Many workers have complained how it was not possible for them to maintain physical distancing in factories. Factories with thermal scanners have reportedly sent the workers home without paying them wages. Workers have, therefore, alleged that even a measure to protect workers from COVID-19 has become an instrument to economically exploit them. In fear of losing job, many workers with COVID-19 symptoms are found reluctant to go for a test. Without a greater access to tests, it will be misleading to say that the number of COVID-19 infection in the apparel sector is low.
The labour ministry, the health ministry and other agencies concerned must, therefore, set about a third-party investigation to establish the COVID-19 infection in the apparel sector. Without an epidemiologically designed surveillance, it is unwise to claim that the infection rate is low in the sector. Inaccurate data used as a ploy to keep factories open may entail severe financial and health risks.
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