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Impacts of COVID-19 on Bangladesh's garment sector

Background information on garment sector

The export-oriented garment industry in Bangladesh employs approximately 4.4 million people, the majority of whom are women. The industry supports a further 40 million people (approximately 25% of the country’s population) indirectly, many of whom are women home-based garment workers – a particularly vulnerable and low paid workforce.

The European Union, United States, Canada and Australia are among the key markets for Bangladeshi garment exports. Garment exports accounted for US$ 34.1 billion or 84% of the country’s overall exports in the fiscal year through June 2019. Brands sourcing from Bangladesh on our tracker can be viewed below.

In September 2018, the Bangladesh government moved to raise the monthly minimum wage for garment workers - for the first time in five years - to Tk 8,000 (US$94), up from the previous Tk 5,300 (US$62). However, this still falls short of the estimated living wage of Tk 48280 (US$569) per month.

In January 2019, tens of thousands of garment workers staged mass protests over the proposed wage increase, which was half the amount the workers and trade unions had been calling for. The largely peaceful protests were met with a widespread and violent crackdown - one worker was shot dead by state security forces and many others were injured, while approximately 12,000 garment workers were dismissed from factories and thousands had criminal charges filed against them. Thousands of the dismissed workers have also been blacklisted and many still have outstanding criminal cases against them.

Bangladesh brought deadly unsafe conditions for garment workers into the spotlight after the Rana Plaza building collapse on 24 April 2013 killed at least 1,134 people and injured over 2,000 others. The collapse of the eight-story building, which housed over five garment factories supplying global brands, remains one of the deadliest industrial accidents to date.

The 2020 ITUC Global Rights Index – which rates countries on a scale from 1 (best) to 5+ (worst) on the degree of respect for workers' rights – rates Bangladesh as 5 and among the world’s ten worst countries for workers.

Impacts of pandemic

Job losses

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a reported 2.3 million garment workers in Bangladesh have been laid off or temporarily suspended as a result of fashion brands cancelling or suspending orders worth over US$3 billion. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has appealed to international buyers to not cancel orders and fulfil existing contractual obligations. The BGMEA has also called for a blacklisting of the brands that did not pay for fulfilled orders.

Wages & social protections

Clean Clothes campaign estimates that in the months of March, April and May garment workers in Bangladesh lost a total of approximately 30% of their normal wages, equivalent to US$502 million (despite government initiatives detailed below).

On 3 May 2020, eligible garment workers affected by the impacts of the pandemic began to receive salary disbursements from factories who had applied for support from a government Tk 5,000 crore stimulus package (equivalent of US$5.9 billion). According to the Minister of Labour and Employment: “RMG workers who did not work in April will get 60 percent of their salary for this month before Eid. Those who worked in factories that remained open amid shutdown in April will get 100 percent salary. Besides, those who resumed work from April 26 will get 60 percent of their wages for the previous 25 days, and full wages for the last five days of this month.” The Bangladesh Bank created a loan fund of Tk3,000 crore to pay for garment workers' wages for the month of July.

In September, the government announced it will provide laid off workers Tk 3000 a month for three months, a relief programme which has been backed by the European Union and Germany, who together paid €113 million.

Labour and human rights violations

In Bangladesh, we have tracked reports of the following rights violations of garment workers during the COVID-19 pandemic:

This is not a comprehensive list of violations and cases, full coverage of the impacts of COVID-19 on Bangladesh’s garment sector and related industrial disputes can be viewed here. Actions taken by fashion brands sourcing from Bangladesh in response to the pandemic can be viewed below.

Demands from local unions & civil society groups

Asia Floor Wage Alliance, WIEGO, HomeNet South Asia and HomeNet South East Asia are calling on brands to make a one-time Supply Chain Relief Contribution equal to 60 days of wages lost for all garment workers in their supply chains – including time-rated, piece-rated, subcontracted and home workers – during the COVID-19 crisis, as a requirement of responsible business practice.

The Sommolito Garment Sramik Federation is calling on factory owners to stop job cuts during the COVID-19 crisis and demanding the creation of a fund, with contributions from factory owners, buyers and the government, to assist garment workers who are struggling to survive.

Click below to find out more information directly from local unions and labour groups:

Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity

Awaj Foundation

Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF)

Bangladesh Garments, Textile & Leather Workers Federation (BGTLWF)

Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF)

Bangladesh Revolutionary Garment Workers Federation (BRGWF)

Bangladesh Textile and Garment Workers League (BTGWL)

Bangladesh Apparel Workers Federation (BAWF)

National Garments Workers Federation (NGWF)

Shadhin Bangla Garments Sramik Karmachari Federation (SBGSKF)

Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF)

United Federation of Garments Workers

You can view a list of campaigns and demands by international civil society organisations demands here.

[This is a live tracker we update on an ongoing basis. If you have additional information on these issues please contact us at [email protected] with the subject line ‘COVID-19 Action Tracker’]