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Coronavirus: Bangladesh's garment industry risks collapse

Zobaer Ahmed
March 25, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a heavy toll on Bangladesh, which is the world's second-largest garment exporter. The industry is rapidly losing orders, and millions of jobs are at stake.

Female workers at sewing machiens in Dhaka
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Hasan

Bangladesh's ready-made garments sector accounts for around 80% of the country's manufacturing income, with at least 4 million workers depending on it. Although the number of COVID-19 cases is not too high in the South Asian country, the pandemic poses a great risk to this sector and the livelihood of garment workers.

The country's garment sector depends hugely on export orders, which have drastically decreased due to the rise of the novel coronavirus cases around the world, including Europe and the US.

Read more: Has Bangladesh made progress on the rights of garment workers?

So far, Bangladesh has lost around $1.5 billion (€1.4 billion), which has impacted some 1.2 million workers, according to Rubana Huq, president of Bangladesh's Garment Exporters and Manufacturers Association (BGMEA).

Foreign brands are increasingly delaying and canceling orders, Huq added.

Since the increase of COVID-19 cases in Europe and the US, Bangladeshi factories are losing around $100 million (€92 million) per day.

Huq told DW that BGMEA is trying to secure workers' wages. "We are trying not to shut down the factories," she said, adding that it is hard to do so because of a substantial drop in exports.

"Our orders until June have been canceled," Siddiqur Rahman, vice president of the Federation of the Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI), told DW. "The situation is dire."

Rahman fears that the factory owners will go bankrupt due to the crisis. "It is only a matter of time now. I think all the factories will be closed."

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Calls for support

BGMEA claims that foreign companies are also canceling orders that are already in production or completed.

"Foreign companies talk about human rights and compliance. Then why are they being unfair to us?" Huq said. "They are even canceling orders that have reached their ports or have already been shipped."

Workers iron T-shirts before they are packaged at a Bangladeshi factory
Workers iron T-shirts before they are packaged at a Bangladeshi factoryImage: picture alliance/Zumapress

Europe is Bangladesh's biggest garment export market with almost 60% of total consumption. In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the South Asian country exported over $19.6 billion worth of garment products to Europe.

Huq urged international companies to support Bangladesh's garment sector during and urged the German government to take necessary measures to help Bangladesh's garment sector.

"Your stores are closed. Our factories are about to close and we will have no business. Some 4.1 million workers will go hungry if we don't fulfill our commitment to their welfare," Huq said in a video message, adding that orders that are already in production should not be canceled. She said Bangladesh would need support for at least three months to keep its factories running.

In a written response to Huq, Germany's Development Aid Minister Gerd Müller said he hoped to "find an approach that will safeguard the textile industry's survival in both Bangladesh and Germany, since millions of people work in that sector."

Eco-friendly fashion

Additional reporting by Harun Ur Rashid Swapan, DW's correspondent in Dhaka.

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