Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Unions Call for Health and Safety Protections for Garment Workers

The Covid 19 pandemic has posed new health and safety risks for garment workers in factories around the world. In addition to the dangers workers already faced from excessive temperatures, unsafe machinery, and factory fires, workers now must also now contend with the spread of a potentially deadly respiratory virus in factories where, too often, social distancing is impossible, ventilation is poor, and appropriate PPE are scarce. With little recourse in the form of government social safety nets, workers are being forced to choose between losing their livelihoods by staying home or risking their health to Covid 19.

This is the untenable choice that now confronts garment workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where devastating waves of the Delta variant are leading to spiking death rates and forcing their respective governments to impose strict lockdowns – except for garment workers. In both countries the government chose to exempt garment factories from lockdown requirements as an “essential industry,” allowing factory owners to require employees to continue coming to work despite the risk of transmission.

This exemption means that Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan garment workers will be unable to refuse unsafe conditions to remain at home during the latest health emergency. The full effect of this decision has likely not yet been felt, but unions in Sri Lanka have already reported cases of workers dying from Covid-19 that they contracted after being forced to come into work.

In response to this imminent threat to the health and safety of garment workers, garment workers’ unions in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, with the support of the WRC and other international labor advocates, have prepared a letter urging local factory owners, national governments, and international apparel brands to take critical steps to protect factory workers.

The letter urges the following:

  • National governments must expand testing and vaccination of garment workers, enable quarantining, increase social distancing and ventilation requirements for factories, and order that all workers be paid full wages during lockdowns. Additionally, governments should include the apparel sector in national lockdowns and apply the rules of their lockdowns equitably to protect garment workers during the pandemic.
  • Apparel brands must extend lead times on orders during lockdowns to allow for the reduction in the workforce or temporary factory closures needed to keep workers safe. Brands must monitor their supplier factories to ensure, together with their suppliers, that workers who make their clothes can do so safely and that those workers who are prevented from coming to work to comply with safety measures are nevertheless paid in full. While this letter is focused on Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, apparel brands must monitor the safety and payment of workers during the pandemic in every country they source from, to ensure that workers do not have to risk their lives to complete brands’ orders.
  • Factory owners must comply with all new health mandates, including ensuring that workers have access to PPE and can work at a safe distance in a properly ventilated environment. All workers must be paid their full wages during lockdowns.

These are critical steps needed to ensure that garment workers will not have to face the impossible choice of working in unsafe conditions in the midst of the Delta variant or staying home without financial resources for their families. The WRC urges that these measures be adopted immediately.