Workers return to Bangladesh’s garment factories despite record Covid deaths

Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers have returned to major cities, besieging train and bus stations after the government said export factories could reopen despite the deadly coronavirus wave.

Authorities had ordered factories, offices, transport and shops to close from 23 July to 5 August and confined people to their homes for a week, as coronavirus infections and deaths hit record levels.

Larger factories that supply top brands in Europe and North America had been excluded from the nationwide lockdown order.

On Sunday the government gave the go ahead for the country’s 4,500 garment factories, which employ more than four million people, to reopen, sparking a rush back to industrial cities this week.

Influential garment factory owners had warned of “catastrophic” consequences if orders for foreign brands were not completed on time.

Hundreds of thousands who had gone back to their villages to celebrate the Eid al-Adha festival and sit out the lockdown headed to Dhaka by train, bus and ferry. Others travelled on foot in the monsoon rain.

At the Shimulia ferry station, 45 miles south of Dhaka, tens of thousands of workers waited hours for boats to take them to the capital.

Garment factory worker Mohammad Masum, 25, said he left his village before dawn, walked more than 20 miles and took rickshaws to get to the ferry port.

“Police stopped us at many checkpoints and the ferry was packed,” he said.

“It was a mad rush to get home when the lockdown was imposed and now we are in trouble again getting back to work,” said Jubayer Ahmad, another worker.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest garment exporters and the industry has become the foundation of the economy for the country of 166 million people.

Mohammad Hatem, vice-president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said up to $3bn (£2.1bn) worth of export orders were at risk if factories had stayed closed.

“The brands would have diverted their orders to other countries,” said Hatem.

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