On Thursday, the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies, UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the Institute for Human Rights and Business, with support from UNDP Bangladesh and the Government of Sweden, virtually launched a report, "The Weakest Link in the Global Supply Chain: How the Pandemic is Affecting Bangladesh's Garment Workers."
As the coronavirus spread across the world in early 2020 and a lockdown in Bangladesh became inevitable, businesses were forced to respond quickly to the evolving situation. The report finds while the industry suffered from the closure of markets, suspended shipments, delayed payments, and a liquidity crisis, Bangladeshi workers, suffered what was in effect a 35% pay cut during the lockdown month. Many Bangladeshi factories supplying to international brands consolidated their business, and some went under. Many thousands of workers lost jobs and depleted their savings without having a safety net to fall back on. As Bangladesh's second lockdown is underway, the findings offer a cautionary tale on how brands and supply chains should respond.
K.M. Abdus Salam, Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, was present as chief guest in the launching where he shared different initiatives undertaken by his ministry for the Welfare of garment workers during the lockdown period. Faruque Hassan, President, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Dr. Kamal Uddin Ahmed, Full-time Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh, spoke as special guests.
K.M. Abdus Salam, in his remarks, said, "Govt. of Bangladesh has taken strong measures to ensure health safety in workplace, particularly in the RMG sector, to continue the production in the industry as well as to safeguard the Welfare of the workers' group. We also need to develop OHS culture which can create a brand image and goodwill."
Sudipto Mukerjee, Resident Representative of UNDP Bangladesh, while launching the report, said, "We need a fundamental mind shift in terms of the role and responsibilities of the business sector. If we want to reverse pernicious trends that have offset much of the pre-COVID progress made in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we must commit ourselves to tackle the crisis head-on and to do so together. UNDP is ready to work together with all of you present here today to ensure that, with collective action, we chart a course towards a brighter future that protects, respects, and fulfils human rights."
"With support from the government of Bangladesh, we have taken a number of steps in ensuring the safety of garments works during COVID-19 pandemic including the establishment of isolation centres, PCR lab among others"- said Faruque Hassan, President of BGMEA. While explaining the background of establishing the Readymade Garments (RMG) Sustainability Council (RSC); he also reiterated the commitment of BGMEA in developing a green and sustainable industry.
"It is extremely critical, now more than ever, to engage in research to understand the impacts of Covid-19 throughout the world. In Bangladesh, while the pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable communities, it has been particularly detrimental for the workers at the very bottom of global supply chains in the nation's many garment factories," stated Dr. Sanchita Saxena, director of the Chowdhury Center.
"The pandemic has revealed the vulnerabilities of many groups, and Bangladesh's workers in the readymade garment sector bore the disproportionate burden. While the scale of the pandemic took everyone by surprise, lessons must be learned from the experience so that the effect of Bangladesh's second lockdown, now underway, causes the least harm to those who suffered the most the last time, said Salil Tripathi, IHRB's senior adviser – global issues, and the report's co-author.
The report is drawn from in-depth interviews conducted between October 2020 and February 2021 with senior executives from international brands, Bangladeshi suppliers, representatives of the international civil society, and Bangladeshi labour activists. It seeks to understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry and the workers, and it proposes changes to policies and practices that can lead to long-term changes that would benefit global retailers, suppliers, and ultimately workers themselves.