Bangladesh reopens 600 apparel factories despite virus risk

Nearly a month after Bangladesh ordered garment factories shuttered to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the industry is reopening hundreds of them despite risks the disease might spread

Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, said she was under pressure to reopen factories after the pandemic cost the industry more than $3 billion in orders that were cancelled or suspended.

At least 856 factories will be reopened soon, Huq said.

Bangladesh has the world’s second largest garment industry after China. It normally earns $35 billion annually from exports mainly to the United States and Europe and employs about 4 million workers, mostly women from rural areas.

Bangladesh began its coronavirus lockdown in late March, when factory owners stopped production apart from some sewing of personal protection equipment. Workers left the capital, Dhaka, and the nearby Narayanganj and Gazipur areas in waves, heading back to their village homes.

At a meeting Saturday, Salman F. Rahman, an influential adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the government was keen to see garment makers slowly reopen their factories in phases.

“We have to open the factories, but we must ensure the workers’ safety to do that,” Rahman told the meeting attended by textile and garment industry leaders.

On Tuesday, the International Labor Organization urged the government to prevent and control the spread of the coronavirus in workplaces, with help and input from workers and workers' groups.

“The first step is the adoption of several safety and health measures at work based on dialogue between employers and workers, and a shared understanding of coronavirus risks,” said the Bangladesh country director for the ILO, Tuomo Poutiainen.

The reopening of the garments industry appears to be coming before the country has fully controlled its coronavirus outbreak.

Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million people, confirmed 549 cases of new infections on Tuesday, raising the total number of cases to 6,462. That was the highest number of new cases in a 24-hour period since the country's first case was confirmed on March 8, said senior Health Directorate official Nasima Sultana.

She said at least 155 people have died and only 139 people are known to have recovered.