SAVAR, Bangladesh: Facing ruin as orders from Western brands collapsed in the coronavirus pandemic, many Bangladeshi garment factories have been given a lifeline with orders to make protective masks, gloves and gowns for export.
Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of workers who used to work in export-oriented apparel factories in the South Asian country remain jobless.
At factories in Savar just north of Dhaka, thousands of workers are working eight-hour shifts, six days a week, making personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We saw the opportunity in February and immediately we switched to PPE manufacturing,” said Syed Naved Husain, chief executive of Beximco, a major supplier to the owners of brands such as Zara and Calvin Klein.
Beximco last month exported 6.5 million medical gowns to US brand Hanes and it expects to export some $250 million worth of protective gear this year.
“Now some 60 percent of our 40,000 workers are engaged in PPE making,” he said. “Coronavirus has changed the world.”
Sumaiya Akter and Rubel Miah, who lost their jobs making apparel for Western retailers, were among the workers making final amendments to the robes.
“I feel lucky for getting work in this factory while many others lost jobs and are now facing difficulties,” 34-year-old mother Akhter said. “At least I can feed my family and parents.”
Bangladesh over the past two decades became the world’s second-largest ready-made garment exporter after China, making clothes for the likes of Primark and H&M.
Before the pandemic, it accounted for around 80 percent of the country’s $40 billion annual exports and employed more than four million people, many of them women from poor rural villages.
But when the world started to go into lockdown, shipments plunge by a staggering 84 percent in April.
About $3.2 million of orders were either canceled or withheld, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
The resumption of work in Bangladesh — which is reeling from its own COVID-19 outbreak — means extra safety measures.One factory owner said, however, that “distancing is almost impossible in the factories because of the nature of the job.”
Now, the BGMEA said, many manufacturers were becoming hopeful again as they pivot toward medical wear.
At least 30 factories have started manufacturing PPE since the start of the pandemic and the “number is growing,” Shuvo said.