The readymade garment (RMG) industry employs millions of workers in Bangladesh and has contributed to the nation’s development. The COVID19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the sector as malls and factories had to close and still today workers continue to face uncertain futures. As Bangladesh enters its second lock-down, it is crucial that the right lessons are learned to mitigate harm to the most vulnerable.
On 29 April 2021 the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, launched a report in Dhaka, Bangladesh, at a virtual event. The report evaluates global retailers’ response to the pandemic and its effect on Bangladesh garment workers through in-depth interviews with major international brands, Bangladeshi suppliers, local labour leaders, and international civil society, and provides recommendations that may help avert future crises.
The report, published with the support of the UNDP Business and Human Rights in Asia (B+HR Asia), the UNDP Bangladesh Country Office, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is drawn from a timely study of global retailers’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on Bangladesh garment workers.
The report covers three main topics:
- The structure of the readymade garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh;
- Stakeholders’ responses to the pandemic and the subsequent impact on workers; and
- Expectations of the industry going forward and recommendations for international brands, suppliers, the government, and international community and consumers.
The report comes less than a month after the Bangladeshi government, in an attempt to contain a rise in the spread of COVID-19, instituted a new 7-day lockdown on April 5th. Sectors associated with export-oriented industries, and mills and factories, were allowed to remain open during that time, with the expectation that health safety measures would be maintained. The RMG industry accounts for approximately 80% of Bangladesh’s total exports, so it is no surprise the government made exceptions to avoid disruption.
The country’s significant dependency on the RMG industry serves as a cautionary case study for how businesses impact the decision making of governments and the well-being of its citizens, and of their responsibility to respect human rights and to demonstrate that they do so through ongoing human rights due diligence processes.
International apparel brands have largely shifted their production of clothing from the industrialised north to the global south, creating millions of jobs and providing a path for workers into the waged economy. But lax enforcement of the limited regulations that exist to ensure workers are fairly treated and compensated means that workers in this industry remain extremely vulnerable. As could have been expected, the global pandemic had catastrophic consequences for many workers in the RMG global supply chain, including Bangladesh.