Workers At Garment Factories In Bangladesh Face Harsh Conditions During The Pandemic

May 26, 2020
Originally published on May 26, 2020 8:19 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to Bangladesh, which is under a coronavirus lockdown, except for garment factories. The garment industry is critical to Bangladesh's economy and to the livelihoods of millions of mostly female workers there. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Sampa Akter works 12 hours a day at a factory in Bangladesh's capital. She sews denim jeans destined for the U.S. and Europe. Earning $95 a month, she's been able to support her disabled brother, her sister and their parents - that is, until late March, when her factory closed because of the coronavirus. Bangladesh has had about 500 COVID-19 deaths in a population of 160 million.

SAMPA AKTER: (Through interpreter) My factory was shut for six weeks. I fell behind on rent. I couldn't pay my brother's medical bills. I'm very scared and vulnerable. It's not only me. All my co-workers are in the same position.

FRAYER: Some relief came in early May when her factory reopened. Her manager gathered all the sewing machine operators together.

S AKTER: (Through interpreter) He told us we'll be paid 60% of our salaries for the days we missed. But he also said global orders have basically stopped, and he doesn't know how long he'll be able to keep paying us at all.

FRAYER: In Bangladesh, where there are no unemployment benefits, any pay cut or furlough can literally lead to starvation.

NAZMA AKTER: No job, no money, starving, hunger.

FRAYER: Nazma Akter - no relation to Sampa - is a former child laborer and now president of one of the largest union federations in Bangladesh. The last time she saw such desperation was seven years ago, when a garment factory called Rana Plaza caught fire and collapsed, killing more than a thousand people.

N AKTER: When Rana Plaza collapsed, many days factory was closed, many days...

FRAYER: Survivors were left with nothing. But back then, big fashion brands stepped up. They paid compensation, full wages and implemented new safety standards. Akter says that's not happening now. Global brands are obsessed with their own pain. They're canceling orders in Bangladesh, where they typically don't have to pay until they take the goods. And now clothes are piling up in warehouses.

AYESHA BARENBLAT: Gap has yet to pay a penny for back orders. JCPenney, Kohl's, Mothercare...

FRAYER: Ayesha Barenblat in California is an activist behind the #PayUp campaign. She's petitioning big fashion brands to pay for whatever they ordered before the pandemic broke out. NPR contacted those brands. Gap and Kohl's did not respond. JCPenney has declared bankruptcy and says it hopes to make some vendor payments. Mothercare says it's working very closely with manufacturing partners but didn't respond when asked for specifics. Barenblat says that's not enough.

BARENBLAT: These are mothers, sisters, wives who have kept these brands profitable for decades. And this is not the time, in a global pandemic, for these brands to turn their backs on the women who make our clothes.

FRAYER: She says some brands, including H&M, Adidas and Nike, have agreed to pay for $7.5 billion in back orders. Factories are reopening to fulfill those, with some help from government loans.

S AKTER: (Speaking Bengali).

FRAYER: Sampa Akter says her factory gave her a mask and installed a hand-washing station at the door. But her sewing machine is just inches from the next one - no social distancing. And that is the least of her worries. She just hopes the factory stays open.

S AKTER: (Speaking Bengali).

FRAYER: "I need to work," she says. "I'll die of hunger before I die of this virus."

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

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