How Bangladesh’s garment makers are turning the coronavirus gloom into a boom

Faced with ruin as orders for Western brands plummeted amid the coronavirus pandemic, many Bangladeshi garment factories received a lifeline with orders to make protective face masks, gloves and gowns for the export.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of workers who worked in export-oriented garment factories in the South Asian country remain jobless despite new orders and some recovery in Western markets.

At factories in the industrial city of Savar, just north of Dhaka, thousands of workers are now working eight-hour shifts, six days a week, making personal protective equipment (PPE).

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On the factory floor, sewing machines powered by hundreds of workers whirled noisily alongside huge piles of white and light blue dresses.

“We saw the opportunity in February and immediately moved into PPE manufacturing,” said Syed Naved Husain, chief executive of Beximco, a key supplier to brand owners such as Zara, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

Beximco exported 6.5 million medical gowns to US brand Hanes last month and plans to export some $250 million worth of protective gear this year.

“Now about 60% of our 40,000 workers are engaged in PPE manufacturing,” he said. AFP. “Coronavirus has changed the world.”

Sumaiya Akter and Rubel Miah, who lost their jobs making clothes for Western retailers, were among the workers who made the final changes to the dresses. “I feel lucky to have found work in this factory when many others have lost their jobs and are now facing hardship,” said Akhter, a 34-year-old mother. AFP. “At least I can feed my family and my parents.”

Over the past two decades, Bangladesh has become the world’s second-largest ready-to-wear exporter after China, manufacturing clothes for Primark and H&M.

Before the pandemic, it accounted for around 80% of the country’s $40 billion in annual exports and employed more than four million people, many of them women from poor rural villages. But when the world began to lock down, the country’s 4,500 manufacturers saw their shipments drop by 84% in April. About $3.2 million worth of orders have been canceled or withheld, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).

Most of the factories – closed due to the loss of contracts and the country’s virus lockdown – have laid off or laid off hundreds of thousands of workers, sparking widespread protests.

There has been some recovery in orders, but BGMEA spokesperson Khan Monirul Alam Shuvo said AFP“The amount is much lower than what we got last year. In June, our factories were operating at 55% of their capacity.”

Returning to work in Bangladesh – which is reeling from its own Covid-19 outbreak – means additional safety measures like social distancing and face masks.

A factory owner admitted AFPhowever, that “distancing is nearly impossible in factories due to the nature of the work.”

Now, the BGMEA said, many manufacturers were getting their hopes up as they turned to medical wear.

At least 30 factories have started making PPE since the pandemic began and “the number is growing,” Shuvo said.

Other companies that had previously made protective clothing on a small scale quickly expanded their factories to meet demand when Western customers came knocking.

“Just three days ago, we received an export order to manufacture 20 million surgical gowns. All of our factories are now booked for the whole year,” Fakir Apparels Director Mashiur said. Rahman Shommo.

Fakir has transformed five of his factories into PPE factories and hired 400 other workers, and now expects to export $200 million this year.

“We have world-class manufacturing facilities,” Husain said. “Bangladesh was well positioned to become a new hub for PPE manufacturing.”

Ahsan H. Mansur, a former International Monetary Fund executive now at the Dhaka-based Institute for Policy Research (PRI), said with the industry operating at 50% capacity, the shift to producing PPE “will provide some relief”.

“This huge unused capacity can be converted with minimal cost and training,” Mansur told AFP.

“The outlook for this type of demand will remain strong.”

Michael O. Stutler