The Impact of the Coronavirus in Bangladesh
Rana Plaza rescue team re-mobilise to tackle the impact of the Coronavirus in Bangladesh
As garment workers take to the streets to demand unpaid wages following the huge number of factory closures, one group involved in the Rana Plaza rescue operation have reformed to support workers and their families fend of starvation and support their local health service cope with the impending crisis brought on by COVID-19.
Many large Western brands have cancelled contracts worth billions of dollars in Bangladesh, which has led to huge swathes of unemployment in the garment industry in developing countries, particularly in Bangladesh, which has raised huge concerns of the impact this pandemic will have on the poorest communities.
However, one garment partnership has taken a different approach. Oporajeo, which means ‘Invincible’ in Bengali, is a worker-owned factory in Bangladesh that was set up by the survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, that saw over 1100 people killed when a garment factory complex collapsed,. Working exclusively in the UK with anti-sweatshop campaign come T-shirt label, No Sweat, the factory has furloughed the majority of their staff on full pay while keeping only a small team of volunteers working to make much needed PPE equipment to support the local healthcare sector that is grossly unprepared for the expected healthcare crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Back in mid-March we decided with our partners in Bangladesh, to pay for our latest order in full but suspend all production so that they could switch over to producing much needed medical masks and aprons that can be donated to local hospitals” said Jay Kerr, activist at No Sweat.
To date, Oporajeo has made and distributed over 2000 PPE suits and over 12,000 face-masks local doctors in the community, and are investigating how to produce low cost ventilators.
Amid concerns about sweatshops now producing PPE equipment in unsanitary conditions by workers in cramped conditions risking their health for a poverty wage, Oporajeo is a leading example of how production should be organised.
“We have several safety measures in place” said Kazi Monir Hossain, Executive Worker at Oporajeo. “We re-arranged our machine layout to ensure at least two meter distance between all staff. Hand washing and rubbing with alcohol is mandatory before entering the factory. We provide slipper shoes, mask, aprons, personal water bottles, plates and glasses to all workers. Hand sanitising with alcohol every few hours is mandatory. We sanitise our factory floor, all machines and furniture, and all doors with hydrogen peroxide once a day. We all go through a medical examination every day.”
The volunteer workforce at Oporajeo is made up of young unmarried workers without children as fears of the coronoavirus and the devastating impact being seen in countries around the world are being taken seriously. Fears of the impact in a developing county like Bangladesh, with such a densely populated capital like Dhaka make the lockdown that was imposed on 24th March a necessary step. But in a country without a strong social safety net people are more scared of facing starvation than the coronavirus. That is why Oporajeo has re-mobilised the team that worked to rescue the buried and recover the dead in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster.
“We are already seeing the impact of food shortages,” Kazi said, “as sacked workers, forced to stay home because of the coronavirus, run low on food. We have witnessed fighting on the streets for food parcels handed out by volunteer groups, and people scraping the floor in the streets to collect grains of rice.”
The situation appears to be just the beginning and has Kazi deeply worried. “I have seen many odd and bad things in my life,” he said, “but I’ve never seen this kind of situation.”
In response, Oporajeo have set up a food-rationing programme for the community around their factory and have agreed with the local police to go door-to-door delivering food to families in lockdown. They are setting up an emergency call centre so that people can reach out for help when needed, and they have arranged transportation to help take the worst affected to the hospitals.
Their partners in the UK, No Sweat, have organised an emergency fundraising effort to help them and have so far raised over £1000. Oporajeo calculated that £10 would feed one person on basic rations for a month, so every penny raised will make a difference people’s lives.
You can donate to No Sweat’s Garment Workers Solidarity Fund at their website nosweat.org.uk