Rubana Huq is the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Bangladesh’s ready-made garment manufacturers are struggling to survive. Seven years after the Rana Plaza collapse, garment business owners wonder whether their new, gleaming factories will ever start their machines again. Margins were already dipping, and pressure on new compliance regulations already made it extremely difficult for all the manufacturers. The labor safety discourse revolved around the suction piping arrangements, water supply, and fire protection in factories. Many global brands source their labor from Bangladesh, including Walmart, H&M, Gap, Target, and Marks & Spencer, just to name a few. Bangladesh is second only to China in terms of exporting ready-made goods.

But covid-19 has put a different spin on things.

In the United States, PVH Corp. closed all its stores, J.C. Penney closed all 850 of its stores, VF Corporation and Kohl’s closed all their stores while Target and Walmart closed none. Late last month, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which provides corporations some needed tax relief.

Manufacturers in Bangladesh have faced the shock of losing the ground beneath their feet. Apparel companies have stopped responding to manufacturers' requests for accepting their goods. Many have invoked force majeure clauses to justify backing out of their contracts and canceling their orders for goods and raw materials. Exports of ready-made goods from Bangladesh factories in the month of March declined by 30.19 percent. In April, such exports decreased by 77.76 percent. Exports between March and May will experience a shortfall of $4.9 billion.

In Bangladesh, ready-made garment exporters received cancellations worth $3.17 billion, reported by 1,140 factories, which will directly impact the lives of 2.2 million workers, not to mention their families. Unable to submit export documents to the bank, paying workers’ salaries (which amount to an average of $110 a month) has become an impossibility. We have reached out to most buyers and pleaded with them to stand by our sides.

The lives and livelihood of our workers have taken a back seat in the discussion on responsible sourcing for brands. Sixty-five percent of Bangladeshi garment workersare 18-to-25-year-old women. The lockdowns have forced many to go back to their villages. Some without homes have been forced to camp around the manufacturing zones. With some 158 small factories unable to pay their workers, it comes as no surprise that workers have begun to take to the streets in protest.

Paying salaries to our workers continues to be our priority. Out of the loan package of about $589 million announced by the government of Bangladesh for all export sectors, the ready-made garment sector can claim around 84 percent of it. But every month, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment sector pays its workers $423 million in wages. Thus, if workers receive full pay, the loan will suffice for just one month. With little to no export earnings, canceled orders, and a loan for just one month’s worth of salaries, we face a daunting challenge.

Under pressure, some brands are speaking to certain favored vendors separately, reaching deals with them on a one-to-one basis. But many other vendors have been left out in the cold. This strategy is not only far from ethical but also will adversely impact supply chains in the long run. Managers of these brands need to realize that all the workers are equal, irrespective of the size of the factory they go to.

April in Bangladesh is now known as the “cruelest month" for Bangladesh’s manufacturers. There must be a collective response fromtrade unions, nongovernmental organizations and academics to make brands aware of their primary responsibility to do what they can to fulfill their obligations to their workers. Otherwise, the cruel month of April risks turning into a devastating summer.

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