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For Bangladesh's Struggling Garment Workers, Hunger Is A Bigger Worry Than Pandemic

Garment workers were deemed essential employees during Bangladesh's lockdown and some resumed work in Dhaka last month.
Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/SOPA Images
LightRocket via Getty Images
Garment workers were deemed essential employees during Bangladesh's lockdown and some resumed work in Dhaka last month.

For more than a decade, Sampa Akter worked 12 hours a day at a garment factory in Bangladesh's capital, sewing denim jeans destined for shopping malls around the world. Earning $95 a month, she's been able to support her disabled brother, her sister and their parents.

That is, until late March — when her factory closed because of the coronavirus. Bangladesh has confirmed more than 57,000 cases and nearly 800 COVID-19 deaths in a population of 160 million.

Bangladesh's garment industry is the second-largest in the world, behind China's. It accounts for about 84% of Bangladesh's export revenue and is so critical to the economy that sewing machine operators like Akter were declared essential workers, exempt from a lockdown. But many factory owners decided to shut down production anyway, amid declining global orders and fears of infection.

"My factory was shut for six weeks. I fell behind on rent. I couldn't pay my brother's medical bills," Akter, 30, told NPR by phone from Dhaka. "I'm very scared and vulnerable. It's not only me. All my coworkers are in the same position."

Akter was among at least 1 million garment workers fired or furloughed by early April — about a quarter of the industry's Bangladeshi workforce.

Most of Bangladesh's garment factories, including Akter's, have since reopened, with support from an $8 billion government stimulus package. In late May, the International Monetary Fund approved $732 million in emergency aid. The European Union has also pledged $126 million.

But three months after Bangladesh discovered its first coronavirus cases, the virus is still affecting global demand. Big fashion brands are still canceling orders.

As a result, Bangladeshi garment workers continue to struggle. Those who've gone back to work have often found the same cramped factory conditions that existed before the pandemic. Many face pay cuts — which workers and union representatives warn will be ruinous, leading to poverty and hunger.

Four out of five garment workers are women, who in many cases support several relatives and live from paycheck to paycheck — in a country with no unemployment benefits. Bangladeshi law requires employers to pay severance, but many don't.

For those workers, a prolonged global recession may prove more deadly than the coronavirus, workers and union representatives say.

Akter's factory reopened in early May, before the lockdown was lifted on May 31. On the first day back, her manager gathered all the sewing machine operators together.

"He told us we'll be paid 60% of our salaries for the days we missed," Akter says. "But he also said global orders have basically stopped, and he doesn't know how long he'll be able to keep paying us at all."

Like Akter, most furloughed garment workers have been promised some compensation for the days of work they missed while their factories were shut. Unions helped negotiate it. But in Bangladesh, where the average per capita income is $1,750, any pay cut at all could lead to starvation.

Memories of the Rana Plaza tragedy

The last time Bangladeshi garment workers felt such desperation was after the Rana Plaza factory complex near Dhaka caught fire and collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing more than 1,100 people. It was the deadliest disaster in the garment industry's history.

"When Rana Plaza collapsed, factories were closed for many days. A lot of orders were canceled then, too, and workers were despondent," Nazma Akter, a former child laborer and now president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, one of the largest union federations in Bangladesh, tells NPR by phone from her office in Dhaka. "But back then, they got full payment."

Akter — who is no relation to Sampa Akter — says seven years ago, big fashion brands stepped up. They paid full wages to sewing machine operators who couldn't return to work for several days. They also paid compensation to survivors who'd been injured, and to victims' families. And they backed a historic overhaul of fire safety measures at factories.

But she says that's not happening now. Global brands are obsessed with their own economic pain, she says, and are canceling orders in Bangladesh, where they typically don't have to pay until they take the finished goods. The president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said orders have dropped by half, and aren't expected to bounce back for another year.

"The fashion industry essentially operates on debt, and all of the risk is disproportionately pushed down to manufacturers and borne by the makers of our clothes, who are mostly young women," says Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of Remake, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose goal is to make the fashion industry more humane and environmentally sustainable.

"I'll die of hunger before I die of this virus"

With an online petition and campaign with the hashtag #PayUp, activists are trying to pressure those brands to pay for whatever they ordered from Bangladeshi factories before the pandemic broke out. Since the petition was launched March 30, organizers say 16 brands have agreed to pay for back orders.

Barenblat names several global brands she alleges have not fully paid their Bangladeshi contractors during the pandemic, including Gap, JCPenney, Kohl's, Primark and Mothercare.

NPR contacted those brands. Gap and Kohl's did not respond. JCPenney, which has filed for bankruptcy, said it hopes to make some vendor payments.

In a statement emailed to NPR, Primark CEO Paul Marchant says his company is paying an additional $450 million for orders that were in production through mid-April, and has set up a "wages fund" to make sure workers in Bangladesh get paid. A spokesperson for Mothercare, Ailsa Prestige, wrote in an email to NPR that the company is "working very closely" with its "manufacturing partners," but didn't respond when asked for specifics.

"Everyone is hurting," says Barenblat. "I have a lot of empathy for that. But these brands have a lot more money than garment workers, and some of them are even eligible for [Western] government bailout funds."

Through its diplomatic missions abroad, the Bangladeshi government is also pushing Western retailers to restore orders that have been canceled or suspended. In a phone call with her Swedish counterpart, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reportedly got a promise that Swedish companies would stop canceling orders, and similar pledges came from Dutch diplomats.

H&M, Adidas and Nike are among brands that have agreed to pay for back orders totaling some $7.5 billion. As factories reopen, they're fulfilling those orders.

But the future remains uncertain.

Akter, the garment worker, says that when her factory reopened, her supervisor handed out masks. There's a new hand-washing station installed at the entrance.

But her sewing machine is still stationed just a few inches from the one next to it. There's no social distancing, and that's the least of her worries, she says.

She just hopes her factory stays open.

"I need to work," Akter says. "I'll die of hunger before I die of this virus."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.