The story of Imran – Bangladesh

Imran is a 40-year-old tannery worker. Originally from Rangpur division, some 300 km from Dhaka, he now lives and works in the Bangladesh capital city. He is the breadwinner for a family of five. As a shaving helper, he used to work six days a week, eight hours per day, for a meagre wage. He works at a machine that shapes the leather to the appropriate thickness for further processing. His life was never easy, but now, with the Corona pandemic, things have become even worse. Imran saw his wage decimated, and was forced to incur substantial debts. Imran and his family suffered from lack of food, and they nearly lost their house.

Imran’s factory

In the tannery where Imran works, various types and qualities of leather are produced. Most of the tannery’s output is exported to countries such as China, Japan or Italy, where it is used for all kinds of products. With 750 male and female workers, this tannery is among the bigger workplaces in the area. On this mixed work floor, the female workers sometimes face prejudices from their male colleagues. They are accused of working less hard and being lazier than the men.

The tannery is unionised. This is quite rare; most tanneries in Dhaka do not have a union on the factory level. The smaller tanneries in particular rarely have organised workforces. Generally speaking, owners are not keen on workers organising themselves.

Factory lockdown and wage loss

At the end of March 2020, the factory closed down for six weeks, due to the Corona pandemic. Workers were allowed to take paid leave for the duration of this closure, but initially no wages were paid at all. This brought Imran and his fellow workers into a situation of acute financial hardship. The Bangladesh government had decreed that employers should pay workers at least 65% of the normal wages during lockdown. Later, Imran did receive his wages for the month of April, but it was only 60% of his normal salary. For a long time, Imran remained optimistic that he would still get the remaining 5% of his April wage. This, however, never happened.

Economic hardship and struggles to survive

During the lockdown, Imran and his family got some emergency relief from the Bangladesh Labour Foundation, a national NGO. This was very welcome, but not enough to cover the family’s basic needs, and Imran had to take out a loan to survive. Even with this, they still suffered from hunger. At the end of the lockdown, the family was two months short on rent. Their landlord showed no mercy and continued to treat the family badly.

A reopened factory, but an insecure job

In early May 2020, the tannery reopened. Imran and all his fellow workers were called back to work. Luckily, no workers had been laid off when the machines started running again. But, as dismissals were constantly happening in the Dhaka leather sector, Imran felt highly insecure, every day expecting to be sacked too. When he got his next payslip in May, it turned out to be only 65% of the pre-lockdown wage. Before the Corona crisis, Imran always had the possibility to work overtime, as a way to earn more. Since May 2020, this was no longer an option due to a drawback of orders.

Unsafe working conditions

At the reopening of the factory, management set up a number of health and safety measures to prevent workers from being infected with Corona. Workers are ordered to wash their hands and do a temperature check before entering the factory. Machines in the factory are disinfected five to six times a day. Knowing how contagious the Corona virus is, Imran doesn’t feel that these measures are sufficient to keep workers safe and healthy. He is critical of his employer for not providing the necessary protective equipment, such as gloves and face masks. Also, social distancing is not implemented in the factory. Facilities to wash hands are lacking. Imran is very unhappy with the situation. He feels nervous and insecure. The union asked management to improve the Corona precautions on the floor, but to no avail. Management simply refused to answer the request.

Worries about the future

The acute hunger of the lockdown period is now over, but Imran and his family still feel the backlash of the lockdown. Imran has not yet been able to repay his debts to the landlord, a fact which continues to weigh on the family’s budget. The education of the family’s children is also at risk. One child, who was progressing well may not be able to pursue their studies because the family cannot afford it anymore. Imran knows his job is not safe, and is still very fearful of losing his job.

All in all, he remains terrified of what the future will bring for him and his family.

Corona in Bangladesh

The Corona pandemic is having a big impact on the leather sector in Bangladesh. In 2020, the major issue was the cancellation of orders by both domestic and international buyers. According to the Leather goods and Footwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association of Bangladesh (LFMEAB), as of April 2020, orders amounting to USD 316 million were cancelled. Traders were unable to get adequate prices for raw hides, resulting in a massive dumping of these materials. Highly problematic also was the interrupted supply of materials, including processed hides and chemicals. Many tanneries and factories closed. When, in March 2020, the Bangladesh authorities called for a nation-wide lockdown, more businesses had to shut their doors. In April 2021, a new lockdown was proclaimed, covering public transport and government offices, but, for the time being, excluding garment factories. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that the entire leather and leather products value chain of Bangladesh is severely disrupted.

The story of Amrita – India

Amrita is a 50-year-old widow who works in a shoe factory in Ambur, a city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Corona pandemic has had a dramatic impact on Amrita’s life. When her workplace closed, Amrita lost out on her wages. She and her family suffered from hunger and she got herself into debt. Since the factory reopened, Amrita has had to work longer hours for less wages.

Single earner

As a single earner, Amrita takes care of a son and a daughter. Amrita lives with her son; her daughter is studying to become a nurse. When the Indian government proclaimed the lockdown in March 2020, Amrita’s daughter was doing an internship away from home. With the sudden lockdown, her internship was abruptly called off, and with the transport system not operating, she could not come back home. Amrita had to pay for her daughter’s accommodation in a hostel, expenses that were way above her budget.

Amrita lives in a modest rental house in Ambur. When Amrita’s wages were cut, she still had to pay full rent. The family received a one-time payment of 1,000 rupees as emergency relief from the state government, which was welcome but far from enough to make up for the financial hardship they faced.

The lockdown and the financial stress were also felt in other ways. The marriage of Amrita’s son had to be postponed. Big gatherings were not allowed during the lockdown and the marriage was not financially feasible either. In the same period, the family could not attend the funeral of a relative, as there was no way to reach the ceremony location.

Amrita’s factory

The factory where Amrita is working produces uppers for women shoes. Amrita’s job is fusing, putting together the leather parts. This factory is part of a big privately-owned group, which owns several companies. The group produces shoes for men and women as well as finished leather, both for the domestic market and for export destinations.

Massive lay-offs

When Amrita’s factory reopened in late May 2020, Amrita could resume her job. Many co-workers, however, were not called back. Of the 1,500 people working in her factory almost half of the workers were laid off after the lockdown was lifted. Before the Corona crisis the factory had 15 production lines; now only six or seven lines were kept running. Temporary workers and helpers were most affected; they were dismissed first. The factory management told the workers that the dismissals were the result of a reduced number of orders and that the factory would make losses if the entire workforce was kept on. Dismissed workers did get a sum of money as compensation, the amount depending on the time they had worked for the factory, but definitely not enough to make up for the loss of employment.

Health and safety measures

One point that Amrita was positive about were the health and safety measures that were introduced by management in the factory. She mentioned the screening of workers’ temperatures and the provision of sanitizer at the compound’s entrance. Workers are instructed to wear masks, and keep a safe distance from each other. Inside the factory, however, no additional facilities for washing hands have been installed.

More work, less pay

During lockdown, as well as since Amrita started working again, she has not received even a third of her normal salary and no festival bonuses. She said that she had no hopes to ever receive her back wages. After the factory reopened, management introduced a new workplan: Amrita now has to work nine hours every day, instead of the eight hours she used to work. This is six hours of extra work per week. The pay, however, is significantly less than before the lockdown. Instead of 7,000 INR (a mere 79 EUR) per month, Amrita now only gets 6,500 INR (73.4 EUR). Overtime hours are not paid at the proper rate. All this amounts to a 341 per cent wage loss. Amrita does not have an employment contract, so she cannot take formal legal action to address this wage theft.

Corona in India

The India garment and footwear sector has been badly affected by the Corona pandemic. Early 2020, the import of key inputs like chemicals, adhesives, dyes and footwear components such as soles, buttons and zippers was severely interrupted, which badly impacted production capacity in the various leather hubs in India. The lockdowns in the US and the EU in the first quarter of 2020, including closure of retail shops, further disturbed production the sector, as it brought the demand for leather products to an immediate halt. As a result, many factories and workplaces in India closed. Late March 2020, the Government of Indian called for the first domestic lockdown, causing further havoc to India economy. In April 2021, a new wave of the Covid pandemic hit the country, forcing the country again into regional lockdown. Only since early June 2021, with case numbers declining, Indian states started easing lockdowns.