Bangladeshis rush back to work as factories reopen despite coronavirus surge

Bangladesh is the world's second largest garment exporter after China.
Bangladesh is the world's second largest garment exporter after China.PHOTO: AFP

SHIMULIA (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers rushed back to major cities on Saturday (July 31), besieging train and bus stations, after the government said export factories could reopen despite a deadly coronavirus wave.

With the economy badly hit by the pandemic, the government excluded the factories that supply top brands in Europe and North America from a nationwide lockdown order.

The authorities had ordered factories, offices, transport and shops to close from July 23 to Aug 5 as daily coronavirus infections and deaths hit record levels.

Officially, Bangladesh has reported 1.2 million cases and more than 20,000 deaths. Experts say the real figures are at least four times higher.

The government said however that the country's 4,500 garment factories, which employ more than four million people, can reopen from Sunday, sparking a rush back to industrial cities.

The 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 Muslim festival and sit out the lockdown, headed to Dhaka in any available transport - some just walking in the monsoon rain.

At the Shimulia ferry station, 70km 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 30km 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," Mr Jubayer Ahmad, another worker, told AFP.

Bangladesh is the world's second-largest garment exporter after China and the industry has become the foundation of the economy for the country of 169 million people.

Mr Mohammad Hatem, vice-president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said up to US$3 billion (S$4 billion) worth of export orders were at risk if factories had stayed closed.

"The brands would have diverted their orders to other countries," Mr Hatem told AFP.