A few weeks ago, Kalpona Akter’s phone started vibrating. She watched with mounting dread as message after message poured in. First there was the garment worker who had been sacked for demanding personal protective equipment for his colleagues. Then pregnant women and union members started calling for help, saying they were also losing their jobs.
As Bangladesh’s garment sector reels from the economic impact of Covid-19 and the shock of £2.4bn of cancelled or suspended orders inflicted on the industry by overseas fashion brands, a wave of job losses has swept across the country. Moreover, during lockdown hundreds of thousands of workers were not paid for work they had already done.
While the Bangladeshi government has rolled out a major bailout package to keep the industry afloat, experts warn that 1.8 million workers are likely to permanently lose their jobs. Already, activists say manufacturers are using Covid-19 as an excuse to weaken unions and purge “undesirable” workers.
“[The Covid-19 epidemic] is the chance for manufacturers to handpick the workers they want to kick out of the industry – the ones with a voice, the ones who are trying to organise,” said Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity.
Since they began tracking cases four weeks ago, Akter’s organisation and others have received reports of the termination of dozens of pregnant workers from more than 30 factories – a number she expects to “increase dramatically in the coming weeks, as workers continue to be fired every day”.
One of the sacked workers, Mitu, was three months pregnant when her production manager fired her in late June. Mitu, who asked that we use only her first name, had taken 19 days of authorised medical leave after she became dizzy at work, nearly fainting. When she returned, she overheard the management discussing not wanting to pay maternity benefits. Then they fired her, citing missed work.
“My family was depending on my income, and my maternity benefits,” she said. “We have had to take out loans to survive, but soon that will run out.”
Another, Morzina, was five months pregnant in May when her manager told her and three other pregnant workers to stay home “for their safety”. When they reported back to work in June, they were told they no longer had jobs. Morzina, who had been working at the factory for eight years, also did not receive the retrenchment benefits – equivalent to nine months full pay – to which she was legally entitled.
While firing pregnant workers is illegal, Nazma Akter, the president of the union Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), has seen a spike since brands began cancelling orders.
Since May, she has filed 50 lawsuits on behalf of sacked pregnant workers. In some of these cases, companies had taken workers’ identification cards and forced them to resign, while others simply refused to pay women their maternity benefits.
Nazma Akter believes there are many more cases, but with industry-wide job losses, many pregnant workers are too frightened to come forward.
“So many women are not getting maternity benefits – the factories are just telling them to leave, and giving them a few days pay,” she said. “Usually we would fight these but with the pandemic, women are afraid. They don’t want to lose their jobs.”
Because of the move to remote working, many brands have also stopped carrying out social audits and factory inspections, which has led to an increase in workplace violations, according to Nazma Akter.
“Without the monitoring, the factories can do what they want,” she said. “We are seeing a real increase in gender-based violence.”
Union organisers are also being targeted, according to Babul Akhter, the president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, who reports anti-trade union activities in a third of the factories where his group operates.
“Before, when factories engaged in union busting, we could go directly to the brands and they would help,” said Akhter. “But now that the brands are cancelling orders and fighting with the suppliers, we are on our own.”
Mark Sebastian Anner, a professor of labour and employment relations at Penn State University and an expert on the Bangladeshi garment industry, warns that the combination of massive job losses and the purging of union activists could lead to worsening conditions for employees, including forced labour.
“This is a profound international crisis that has disproportionately affected the people at the bottom of the supply chain, to the extent that their very survival is at stake,” said Anner. “We’ll be seeing the repercussions for years to come.”