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(en) Bangladesh AnarchoSyndicalist Federation - BASF: Coronavirus crushes Asia's garment industry

Date Sun, 31 May 2020 08:40:08 +0300

Garmentworkers returning from a workplace as factories reopened after thegovernment has eased the restrictions amid concerns over the coronavirusdisease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 4, 2020. ---- Zarchi Lwin pawned her only two gold banglesfor $140 when the owner of the Myanmar factory where she sewed wintercoats for British retailer Next Plc shut it down after orders dried updue to the coronavirus. ---- She is one of hundreds of thousands of garment workers across Asiawho have been laid off, according to the Workers' Rights Consortium, alabour rights campaign group, and are now struggling to survive withlittle welfare support, mired in debt and in many cases reliant on foodhandouts.
"If I have a job and an income, I can pay for medical treatment formy mother," Zarchi Lwin, 29, told Reuters from the home she shares withher 56-year-old mother, who has lung disease, in a shanty town on theoutskirts of Yangon. "Now no income, no job," she said, fighting backtears. "We don't know what to do."

Next temporarily closed allits stores in Britain in March due to the coronavirus. The company saidin a statement it had only cancelled some orders and "endeavoured to befair" to its suppliers. KGG, the factory where Zarchi Lwin worked, didnot respond to requests for comment.

Since the 1960s, Asia has grown into the world's garment factory,sending about $670 billion worth of clothes, shoes and bags a year toEurope, the United States and richer Asian countries, according to theInternational Labour Organisation, a United Nations agency.

After non-essential stores were closed in many countries and peoplewere told to stay at home to prevent further spread of the disease,international retailers from ASOS Plc to New Look said they cancelledorders with garment makers. Factory owners in Myanmar, Bangladesh andCambodia immediately shut down thousands of factories and sent homeworkers with little or no pay.

Retailers generally place orders at least three months ahead ofdelivery and pay for the finished product when it is delivered.Initially most retailers cancelled all outstanding orders, but manyadjusted their position in March and April after a public outcry,agreeing to pay for goods that had already been manufactured or weremid-production.

To finish pending orders, about half of Bangladesh's 4,000 garmentfactories have reopened, according to garment manufacturer associations.About 150 of Myanmar's 600 or so factories have shut down, while 200out of 600 or so are closed in Cambodia.

Many factories that have reopened are struggling to enforce socialdistancing and good hygiene practices in often cramped conditions, twounion officials told Reuters. "Most of the factories are not complyingwith the safety guidelines," said Babul Akter, president of theBangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, adding that dozensof garment workers had been infected with the virus. "Just placinghand-washing systems and checking temperatures at the entrances will nothelp. Inside the factories, when the workers work so closely, how willthey maintain safe distancing?"

A garment worker wearing a protective mask, returns from a workplaceas factories reopened after the government has eased the restrictionsamid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka,Bangladesh, May 4, 2020. REUTERSA garment worker wearing a protectivemask, returns from a workplace as factories reopened after thegovernment has eased the restrictions amid concerns over the coronavirusdisease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 4, 2020.REUTERSSome orders have been trickling back. Swedish fashion retailerH&M said it only paused orders for two weeks at the height of thevirus outbreak. U.S.-based Walmart Inc, the world's largest retailer,said it placed new orders with Asian manufacturers last month.

For a list of retailers and the status of their orders with Asian garment makers, see FACTBOX


Despite the new orders, several garment manufacturers said the lowvolume of work on the books means many factories in Myanmar, Bangladesh,and Cambodia will not be viable, which means many of the young womenwho make up the majority of the workforce will no longer have jobs. Thatleaves them torn between returning to families in the countryside,where there are few employment opportunities, or enduring life in thecity in the hope that factories will reopen at full capacity.

The European Union has created a wage fund for workers in Myanmarworth 5 million euros ($5.3 million) to pay a portion of the salaries ofthe most vulnerable for three months. Myanmar has promised to cover 40per cent of the salaries of laid off workers. More than 58,000 have beenlaid off, according to the country's garment manufacturer association.

In Bangladesh, one million workers were furloughed or laid off bylate March, according to the Penn State Centre for Global Workers'Rights, although some have since returned to work. About 75,000 have notbeen paid for March, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturersand Exporters Association (BGMEA), which estimates tens of thousandsmore will not be paid wages owed to them.

The government has announced a $588 million aid package for itsexport sector to help pay employees. Garment manufacturers, whichestimate they have lost almost $3 billion in exports since the start ofApril, said the funds are not enough. Foreign-owned firms and jointventures are not eligible for payments.

In Cambodia, where about 60,000 garment workers have been"suspended," according to the country's manufacturer association,workers have been promised $70 per month - $40 from the government and$30 from the employer - but that amounts to just over a third of thecurrent minimum wage.

In that country's capital, Phnom Penh, 39-year-old Rom Phary said sheand her husband had racked up $550 of debt and interest since she losther factory job in early March, several times her monthly salary. Shesaid she and her family are living off rice donated by an NGO, theCentre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, which is working inCambodia. Phary said she persuaded her landlord to let her stayrent-free rather than forcing the family to return to relatives in theprovinces.

"If we go back, it would be shameful. We don't know what we would do," she said.


In Myanmar the garment industry was the fastest-growing sector of theeconomy, accounting for about 10% of the country's exports and offeringan escape route from extreme poverty for hundreds of thousands ofpeople, many of them migrants from rural areas.

In Dagon Seikkan, an industrial zone on the outskirts of Yangon thatis home for many migrant workers, local officials have been giving outrations of free rice to those who have been without jobs for some time.But Zarchi Lwin said she did not qualify as she was employed up untilrecently.

She and her parents left their small village in the central Magweregion six years ago after selling their house to pay for treatment forher brother, who eventually died from kidney disease. At first, theyworked as cleaners and lived in a dormitory. Then Zarchi Lwin trainedherself to sew clothes and secured a sought-after job at one of thenearby factories, earning $146 per month: enough for food, rent of asmall wooden shack, and medical treatment. She saved up for a year tobuy the bangles she pawned, she said.

Sobbing, she recounted how her mother told her she wants to die inorder to lessen the financial burden on the family. "Sometimes I want tokill myself because of this situation," she said. Her father, a guardat a furniture factory, has also lost his income.

Before the new coronavirus, garment workers in Yangon and theneighbouring province of Bago were sending more than 40 million euros($43 million) in remittances to their hometowns and villages across thecountry each month, said Jacob Clere of SMART Textile and Garments, aEuropean Union-funded project.

"Education for children who would otherwise not have it. Medicinefor grandmothers who would otherwise go without. Healthy food. Bettershelter," said Clere, describing how that money helped ruralcommunities. Many are now at risk of being forced into early marriage ortaking on debt from loan sharks at very high rates, said Mike Slingsby,a regional urban poverty specialist.


In Bangladesh, the world's second-largest garment maker behind China,4.1 million workers or 2.5 per cent of the population worked in garmentfactories, many of which are now closed. About 70 per cent of Dhaka'sgarment industry workers left the city to return to their villages, saidTuomo Poutiainen of the International Labour Organisation, although hesaid some have since returned after some factories reopened to finishwork on existing contracts.

Orders for June are down 45 per cent from a year ago, according to Rubana Huq, president of the BGMEA.

Banesa Begum, a 21-year-old worker laid off from a Dhaka factorymaking clothes for Zara, among other brands, said she had nothing tosend to her parents, subsistence farmers in the northern district ofRangpur. "I know they are starving," she said.

Inditex, the owner of Zara, told Reuters it will pay for orders fromgarment makers, whether finished or in production, according to theoriginal payment schedule.

Begum's salary also paid for her two young brothers to go to school."I don't know how I'll manage money to continue their study," she said."All my dreams are shattered."

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