Ajisa Binte Sima worked at a factory in Sagorika Industrial Area, Pahartoli, Chattogram, Bangladesh for seven months, making clothes for retail clothing companies, primarily Kohl’s, before she was terminated on June 23, 2020 with every other worker at her factory who were there for less than a year.
She is one of thousands of factory garment workers in Bangladesh who have been permanently laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic, as clothing retailer corporations in the US and Europe have cancelled orders.
“I can’t pay my house rent. I’m having issues getting food for my family. This job was my only source of income,” said Sima. “Because of COVID-19, work orders decreased, so the factory doesn’t need that many workers. Some buyers didn’t pay bills on time, others are asking for discounts, while thousands of workers like myself are going to bed without food.”
$3.18 billion worth of clothing orders in Bangladesh have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, impacting 2.28 million workers.
Kohl’s alone cancelled $150 million in orders, around $50 million from Bangladesh factories, weeks before paying out $109 million in dividends to shareholders.
“The temporary closure of all 1,159 Kohl’s stores caused us to significantly reduce our inventory to align with anticipated sales. As a result, we made the difficult decision to cancel orders with some of our suppliers where we had the contractual right to do so,” said a spokesperson for Kohl’s in an email.
The cancelled orders have resulted in mass layoffs throughout Bangladesh, as workers who remain working are experiencing wage decreases and are waiting on unpaid wages.
Rintu Barua has worked for twenty years at a garment factory in Kalurghat, Chattogram, Bangladesh that also produces clothing primarily for Kohl’s. Barua has only received 65 percent of his salary from the factory in recent months, and received only 50 percent of his bonus for Eid Mubarak in May 2020.
“I haven’t been able to pay rent on my house for the past two months, and the owner is pressuring me to come up with the rent,” said Barua.
According to Barua, garment factory workers in Bangladesh typically work 8 to 10 hours per week, six days a week. Many continued working during the pandemic to try to keep up with previous delivery dates and orders.
“Every day there are a few factories getting closed. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs and thousands will lose their job within the next couple of months,” added Barua. “Workers are facing a really hard time and some are leaving the city because they are now unable to afford the cost of living in the cities.”
Some workers requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation as they struggle with unpaid wages and unsafe working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Salaries have been reduced and bonuses have been halved,” said a garment factory worker in the Gaizpur division of Dhaka, Bangladesh for four years. “Factory management often stock their products in advance from our overtime. They always have an option to profit. But during COVID-19, they said that they have no money as orders are cancelled.”
Their factory makes clothes for several companies, primarily Puma. Their factory closed down for a month on March 26, 2020, and despite reopening, they only received 60 percent of their salary for March, April, and May, and have not received pay for the month of June.
They explained workers with less than one year of seniority have not been called back, along with several pregnant women. During the pandemic, the worker said social distancing is not practiced and overtime has been eliminated, but workers still suffer verbal abuse from supervisors if they show any tiredness or make any small mistakes.
Another worker, in the Asulia, Baipail area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, makes clothing for several European clothing retail companies. Their factory has been closed since March 2020, and they’ve only received a portion of wages since then.
“I don’t have a husband and am facing a serious financial crisis along with my three sons and daughter. This is very difficult for me to carry the expenses of the family, we’re passing days almost half-starving,” the worker said.
“In Bangladesh, we cancelled less than 1.5% of our orders and as said, we paid these suppliers for the costs of cancelled orders,” said a Puma spokesperson. “We are working with the Better Work Program of the ILO in Bangladesh to make sure that our suppliers follow all legal requirements, including lay off regulations.”
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