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People or the Economy? The Case of the Garment Industry in Bangladesh

Along with other countries, Bangladesh went into a nationwide lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the end of March. The country’s version of lockdown has been quite controversial, as garment factories resumed operations despite the drastic measures taken elsewhere in society. As Rumi, one of the 4.1 million textile workers, puts it: “Police and soldiers beat up people, rickshaw pullers and street vendors, anyone who comes out onto the street.” Yet, garment factories were wanted to be forgotten by the authorities, and workers claimed that their lives, families, and communities were put at risk.

The garment industry in Bangladesh produces 84 percent of the country’s total exports and supplies some of the world’s biggest brands. Last year the export revenues hit $34 billion, and the industry accounts for 13 percent of the GDP. Therefore, without a doubt, the garment industry is the most crucial part of Bangladesh’s economy. Still, the workers are incredibly vulnerable to the virus as they live and work in cramped conditions. Besides, 85 percent of them are women, many barely adults, underpaid, and have families to look after.

The government ruled that garment factories may stay open if they take additional safety measures, such as maintain physical distancing and ban the use of public transport. However, the Guardian has reported that workers from factories on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, said there were no additional measures besides hand washing at the factory’s entrance. Overcrowded busses were still bringing people to work, and no physical distancing was enforced, just as before the pandemic. Workers claim people are getting sick during work hours, yet nothing is done in some factories, and workers are forced to continue their shifts as usual in fear of losing their jobs.

As the demand for clothes has plummeted around the world, the fear of layoffs is real. A report by Penn State University from March 2020 reveals that already more than a million garment workers have been fired or furloughed due to order cancellations and buyers refusing to pay for them. As a result, 150.000 workers were denied their wages in March. $3.5 billion worth of orders have been canceled in the past two months, and many factory owners worry more is on the way if the factories remain closed. Rivals in nearby countries, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, have reopened their factories already, which puts Bangladesh and its politicians in a tricky situation, since losing customers would hurt the economy severely.

The confirmed COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh on March 15th had passed 20.065, and 298 deaths were reported so far, which is the most in South Asia after India and Pakistan. Regardless of the statistics, the actual numbers are expected to be much higher, as the testing rate in the country is one of the lowest in the world.

All countries currently face the same problem, whether reopening the economy or protecting people from catching COVID-19 is more important. Even so, the issue is far more difficult in developing countries such as Bangladesh, where the economy is entirely dependent on a single industry with almost non-existent margins. Garment workers and their families are put in considerable risk, and the healthcare in the country is far from the level most of us are used to. However, it seems that not all countries have the choice of protecting their citizens to the best ability, whether we like it or not.


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