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Bangladesh garment workers stage mass protest over pay

Lauretta Roberts
13 April 2020

Thousands of Bangladesh garment workers have been staging protests on the streets over the past two days as factories, who have had billions of pounds worth of orders cancelled by Western fashion businesses, have not paid their workers.

Protesters in Dhaka told AFP the they feared starvation more than the coronavirus, which has forced the closure of non-essential retail across the globe and led to many major brands cancelling orders.

"We are afraid of the coronavirus. We heard a lot of people are dying of this disease," one worker Sajedul Islam, 21, told AFP.

"But we don't have any choice. We are starving. If we stay at home, we may save ourselves from the virus. But who will save us from starvation?"

Like many nations, Bangadesh is currently on lock-down but many workers flouted the rules to take to the streets with 20,000 turning out on Sunday and a further 5,000 on Monday. Some say they have not been paid for two months.

The Government in Bangladesh has just extended its lock-down which appeared to be the flash-point for workers taking to the street. Some industry associations, such as the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, say they have been attempting to get their factories to agree to pay wages, but the lock-down made it harder.

Meanwhile the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has an on-going tracker on its website which is constantly updated with the amount of business that has been lost due to COVID-19.

At the time of writing it said that orders totalling $3.11bn had been cancelled while 976.01m items of apparel could not be shipped. The BGMEA's figures represent around two thirds of the factories in the country so the actual figures are likely to be much higher.

Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of Ready Made Garments (RMG) in the world after China. RMG is the South East Asian country's main export with the industry employing nearly 4 million people, mostly women, who work without any job security.

The BGMEA has revealed the cancelled orders from Primark along totalled £135m and orders suspended by the retailer total £121m. Primark has set up a fund to ensure garment workers in factories where it has cancelled orders would continue to be paid, and has been working with unions to ensure the money goes directly to the workers.

Sir Philip Green's Arcadia has called £7.4m in orders in Bangladesh and imposed a 30% discount on all in-progress orders. If the supplier refused the discount, then the orders would be cancelled, it told suppliers in a letter last week.

New Look has cancelled £6.8m in orders in Bangladesh and more elsewhere; it has gone further than many retailers in refusing to pay for any further orders, including some of those which have already been delivered, saying payment was being delayed indefinitely and inviting suppliers to take back stock if they wished.

Meanwhile global giant H&M has cancelled future orders but has agreed to take delivery of all completed orders and pay for all orders in progress. It is also working with unions to help support garment workers.

The BGMEA is urging brands and retailers to forge a "responsible partnership" with it and suppliers in the country in order that a solution can be found.

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