Apparel Workers in Bangladesh Face Overwhelming Vulnerability Due to COVID 19
March 3, 2021
Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, GFEMS and its partners designed a short-term aid program to support at-risk workers and factory owners in the informal apparel or Ready-made Garments (RMG) industry in Bangladesh. In August and September 2020, the Fund’s partners surveyed worker households and factory owners in the industrial hubs of Keraniganj and Narayanganj to identify recipients for this emergency support. Importantly, this survey also provides a snapshot of vulnerability in these high-risk communities where research and investment have historically been scarce. In addition to informing the Fund’s emergency response activities, this data may help the anti-slavery field more effectively design and deploy aid to serve this population.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster, formal factories that produce for global brands have improved their working conditions in response to increased corporate and government oversight. The country’s informal apparel workers and RMG factories primarily produce for the domestic market or work as under-the-table subcontractors and, as a result, have not benefited from the same progress. Further hampering progress, there is relatively little data available on the rates and nature of forced labor in this informal RMG sector.
The data presented in this briefing were previously unavailable for informal apparel workers in this region, making the data extremely valuable to governments and NGOs in designing aid and programming.
This briefing addresses that data gap by sharing findings from the survey of nearly 2,000 RMG workers and 200 factory owners conducted from August through September of 2020. These findings illustrate the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the informal worker communities, an already vulnerable and under-addressed population. In particular, the data illustrate the overwhelming risks faced by informal factory workers as they recover from the immediate impacts of the pandemic: widespread unemployment, difficulty repaying debts, and – for most families – less than one week of food supplies in their home. The findings also reflect the scarcity of government and NGO aid in both areas, but particularly Keraniganj.
Select Key Findings
Few workers reported being provided personal protective equipment or working in factories where preventative measures such as social distancing or temperature screenings.
In total, 1,031 informal worker households and 77 factory managers in Narayanganj and 832 informal worker households and 121 factory managers in Keraniganj were interviewed. All told, these findings paint a picture of exceptional vulnerability in both the communities.
Despite the informal apparel population being extremely vulnerable, almost none received support from the Government or NGOs.
The findings indicate heightened financial vulnerability among surveyed informal apparel workers. The majority of workers, including nearly all in Keraniganj, reported new or exacerbated debt in the last month; those figures correspond with the majority of respondents who experienced reduced employment in the same time period. Almost no workers in Keraniganj reported receiving support from the Government of Bangladesh, NGOs, or their employers.
Narayanganj, comparatively, has a more active NGO presence and, as a COVID-19 “Red Zone,” received more government support. These two factors explain why a higher percentage (67.5%) of workers reported receiving Government or NGO support. This support was often insufficient, however. Nearly all worker households were food insecure, with less than one week of food supplies available.
The Fund’s apparel programming in Bangladesh aims to respond to these and other critical vulnerabilities faced by informal workers. However, these findings are a reminder that greater investment in and attention to informal RMG workers, particularly in Keraniganj, continue to be necessary. Coordinated support from governments, civil society, and the private sector can speed these worker protections as the industry strives for a responsible recovery.