The Bangladeshi government has threatened to file legal action against garments factory owners who refuse to pay their workers’ salaries during the COVID-19 lockdown.
As thousands of factories shut down operations when western fashion brands cancelled their orders, tens of thousands of garment workers have been struggling after not receiving their salaries for the month of March.
Hundreds have taken to the streets demanding payment despite a lockdown order and prohibition against large public gatherings.
Labour ministry official Shibnath Roy said businesses that did not pay staff would not receive any money from a US$588 million rescue package that Bangladesh announced last month for its crucial export sector.
“We have taken these steps to create pressure on factory owners. If they still don’t pay, we will file cases against them in the labour court,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The government has said at least 350 factory owners have not yet paid March wages, with more than 150,000 workers affected, though labour leaders say the true figure is much higher.
The head of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association Rubana Huq said 98 of the 2,274 factories it represents had yet to pay workers.
Most are small-scale subcontractors and would likely have to close, she said, calling it “the unfortunate reality of the sudden change in global commerce caused by COVID-19”.
Millions of households in Bangladesh depend upon the garment sector, which has been hit hard by the cancellation of more than $3 billion-worth of orders as shops around the world shut down.
The industry accounts for more than 80% of Bangladesh’s exports and employs about 4 million people, mostly women.
Union leaders have said factory owners must pay their workers for March, when plants were still open.
“I still get calls from workers every day who say that they have not been paid and that they are struggling. They don’t deserve this,” said Nazma Akter head of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, which represents 100,000 workers.
“Our workers have worked throughout March, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be paid.”
Afroza is among those who have not yet been paid. She is pregnant and worries about getting enough to eat.
“We are under a lot of pressure,” said the 28-year-old, who asked to be identified by only her first name.
“My landlord keeps reminding me my rent is due. For food, I borrowed 300 takas (US$3.5) on Sunday, and my family is still living on that.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)