THE quandary of the garment workers during this lockdown about their going home and coming back several times when travel ban was enforced on the rest of the Bangladeshi citizens and all modes of public transportation was practically shunned by the government because of its associated health risk demonstrated once again quite blatantly that the society has no compassion for these foot soldiers of the economic growth locomotive of this country. That whole worker humiliation started first with letting them go home after the government had declared lockdown (it was actually called general holiday) and bewilderingly, they were then told to come back to join as the factories were going to open. They found it out on their way to Dhaka that they were actually cheated — they were made to go back home again on the same day. We saw another round of dramatic exodus. Most workers without a job and wage cannot simply afford to live indefinitely in Dhaka — one of the costliest capitals in the world.
Then within a few days they were told to come back again as this time some factories were really going to restart. So, they came back. Within a few weeks the factory owners started to fire and several thousands of the workers have lost their jobs by now as there was not much demand of garments in the western markets where shopping malls closed their doors or sale simply went down as consumers decided not to spend on clothes sensing an imminent economic recession. Bangladesh caters to the low- and middle-income western garment consumers who were hurt the most by this pandemic. The Western retailers cut their losses by ‘outsourcing’ their burden on the supplier country factories by vacating their contracts or simply deferred or cancelled payment for the finished supplies that either reached the destination country or were already on the way.
This shame game played on the garment workers by the imposing national and international stakeholders with the false opening and real closing of the factories at the expense of their health and safety displayed vividly that the garment workers have downright no say on anything — anything that has bearing on their life, health, safety, livelihood and wellbeing. The mockery as was staged by the garment factory owners and their muscular owners’ body, BGMEA, and an analogous lack of empathy shown to them by the policy makers and regulators corroborate unapologetically that garment workers warrant no mercy from anyone — they are just a disposable segment of the labour force, lying at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, and whatever is wished can be done with them, to them, about them and on them. They are no one’s darlings in this society.
For the last three decades, garment workers’ only role has been to serve their domestic and international masters to make fortune, and they only subsist to make the GDP growth indicators look fatter or taller. Even during this pandemic that created havoc in the world by killing scores of people, when all other socio-demographic segments have been allowed and encouraged to cove inside their safe and comfortable dens, garment workers have been left out on the streets far away from any safety net protection offered any quarter. Garment workers are hold as pawns on the bargaining table where chairs are reserved for the government and factory owners.
There is citizenry — educated and conscientious — who mocked garment workers going and coming to and from Dhaka during those days. The news media and social media posted vivid images of them crossing miles on their feet with boxes on their heads and over their shoulders, clogging the ferries, using informal and unsafe transportation to make these journeys. They looked like cartoon characters in these pictures. They spent a lot of their hard-earned cash for these rough rides only to save their jobs. They did not earn sympathy from any quarter- the social elites, the middle and upper class, the garment profiteers — who chanced their luck with garment business; even the health professionals rather blamed these workers for being empty — headed who turned themselves as carriers of a deadly virus with their mad rush during these heartbreaking travels to save their jobs. Newspaper editors showed no mercy - some columnists commented that the workers looked like ping-pong balls.
What could these workers do? This garment job is their life-blood; this meagre amount they earn at these factories provides them with shelter and food, it gives them identity and helps them support their family members. They have to live in this huge, hostile and extortionate capital city in conditions that may only mimic refugee camps. Several adults choke inside a small one-bedroom house often sharing only one kitchen and bathroom; they barely have three good meals a day which often lack the basic nutrition needed for the very hard labour they provide for 10 to 12 hours a day. They eat mostly carbohydrate in their meals with an occasional piece of inferior grade protein and earn a wage that leaves nothing at the month-end to spare anything for their pleasure or recreation, forget about saving for their future. They work long shifts, at least six days a week and often pick overtime to earn few extra cash. Yet, these malnourished, under-height and under-weight workers are the ones who built and grew the economy of this country and flourished its GDP — the magical three lettered word so that the country can cherish the triumph of its economic policies and hypnotize the world with its development miracle.
The series of garment factory disasters in Bangladesh created an unfortunate but tremendous momentum to improve working conditions and wellbeing of these workers. The Western companies could capitalize on this impetus. Yet, the achievements made under their worker empowerment mandate have been pathetic if looked closely. The North American Alliance that operated in Bangladesh for five years and spent millions claimed to have worker empowerment as one of its main mandates. With all its buying power, resources, expertise and political influence, the Alliance was able to form Safety Committees in only 181 factories in Bangladesh. The mere fact that 72 per cent of the North American supplier garment factories in Bangladesh do not have a Safety Committee provides a clear evidence of their lack of resolve to empower these workers.
Garment workers need to have access to conduits to raise their concerns that they encounter in their life inside and outside the factory and to resolve any disputes they may have with management and bargain with the government and they need to actively participate on and partner with remedial programs and interventions.
COVID-19 pandemic induced sequence of events showed it one more time that worker empowerment remains to be an elusive idea for the millions of garment workers in Bangladesh and they have no say about a single issue that has any influence on their life and work.
Hasnat M Alamgir is a professor at the department of pharmacy, East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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