Fast-fashion nightmare for Bangladeshi clothes makers

ASHULIA (AFP) – One day Parvin was toiling to meet the fast-fashion demands of European capitals, the next she was among hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi clothes workers made instantly jobless as the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Big-name international brands have cancelled billions of dollars in orders because of the pandemic, decimating Bangladesh’s most important export industry and hurting in particular rural woman who dominate the workforce.

Parvin, a 28-year-old seam-stress, joined thousands of work-ers queuing to collect final wages from tables of banknotes set up at the Al Muslim factory, one of the biggest in the country that supplies some of the world’s most famous labels.

The workers waited in long lines, each one metre apart in a bid to keep up social distancing, and the anxiety built as the towers of bank notes went down.

“We don’t know when it will reopen,” said Parvin, who collected her salary for March just before the giant complex closed its doors.

A general view of an empty garment factory in Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. PHOTO: AFP

She has no other means to support her family going forward, and described her situation as a “catastrophe”.

“Many factories have already closed. My husband is jobless.”

Making the shirts, pullovers, bras and socks for stores in wealthier nations is the foundation of Bangladesh’s impoverished eco-nomy. It accounts for 80 per cent of the South Asian nation’s USD40 billion of annual exports and has played a vital role in its growth of the past two decades.

More than four million people, mainly women from poor rural villages, are employed in the sector. But the industry has a reputation for running sweatshops, with workers toiling in unsafe factories without labour protections or a social safety net.

The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, when the collapse of the garment complex claimed the lives of 1,130 lives, exposed appalling safety conditions in Bangladeshi factories.

Now, with international brands walking away and a government lockdown stopped people in Bangladesh travelling, laid-off workers are complaining of being dumped without any help.

Thousands of workers have staged multiple demonstrations over the past week complaining that factories have not paid them.

“Many of us don’t have food at home now. We can’t even ask for hand-outs on the streets because those poorer than us would mock us as we have jobs,” said sewing machine operator Didarul Islam.

International brands have cancelled or held up orders worth USD3.11 billion, affecting more than two million workers, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.