Ignoring health and social distancing directives, hundreds of thousands of workers have travelled in crammed goods transports, auto-rickshaws, rickshaw vans and even walked to reach their workplaces in Dhaka and Narayanganj and Gazipur to apparently save their jobs with factories set to reopen on Sunday.
The government's sudden decision on Friday afternoon to reopen export-oriented industries, including the garment sector, amid the ongoing lockdown has started a rush of people trying to get back to the industrial cities, despite the ongoing restrictions on public transport. However, the government decided to allow public transport to run from Saturday till 12pm Sunday to reduce the suffering of the returnees. But the damage has been done.
Thousands of workers on their way to workplaces have had to endure endless suffering after they got a notice from factory authorities on their mobile phones to join work.
Commuters had to pay five to 10 times higher fares just to reach their destinations before their factories reopened. In such a long journey of hundreds of kilometres, the rain has added to their misery.
The same thing happened during the first round of coronavirus shut down last year when thousands of workers walked over many kilometres or used goods transports to return to work.
The return of a large number of people from village homes paying without following a modicum of health safety guidelines has also raised fears of further deterioration of the pandemic situation in the country.
Starting from 23 July, factories were supposed to be closed till 5 August as part of the government's efforts to rein in an alarming spike in Covid-19 infections, but following repeated demands from business leaders, the government decided to ease the restrictions from 1 August.
However, the government did not provide any instruction on how workers would return to work when public transports have remained suspended.
On the other hand, factory owners said they would start operations with the workers staying near factory areas and those in their home villages would join work in phases.
But workers say the reality is different. Many factories have phoned workers or sent them text messages, asking them to join work as factories will resume on 1 August.
Ananta Jalil, managing director of AJI Group, in a message on his verified Facebook asked workers to return to work by Sunday.
"All our factories will be fully open from August 1 (Sunday). So everyone is requested to be present at their workplaces," he said in his post.
Workers of Best Wool Sweaters Ltd, Fountain Garments Manufacturing Ltd, Ananta Casual have got the factory reopening notice.
Meanwhile, the government has allowed the operation of public transport till Sunday 12pm to carry the Dhaka-bound garment workers. During this period, bus, launch and train services will be operational in all the routes across the country.
Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told The Business Standard that workers cannot be forced to return to work at a time when factories are set to open. Factories will be reopened with only workers living nearby.
While factories will reopen, they must strictly maintain all health protocols, including ensuring social distancing at entrances and exits too, he said.
Faruque also assured that workers will not lose their jobs if they fail to rejoin work during the lockdown, adding that once the lockdown is lifted workers can gradually return to work.
But workers' leaders complained that the statement of the BGMEA president did not match the reality.
Towhidur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Apparels Workers Federation, told TBS that production managers or line chiefs of factories deal with workers. In the past, workers were kept out of jobs and faced salary cuts on various excuses for joining to work late. This time workers will be harassed on various pretexts too. To avoid harassment, they are now rushing back to workplaces.
Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity said factory owners say 70% of workers live in the vicinity of the factories, but the reality is that it will not be more than 30%.
She claimed that over 20 lakh garment workers were in their home villages.
Sirajul Islam Rony, president of the National Garments Workers and Employees League, said workers are rushing back to workplaces as they have been asked to join work. If there were arrangements of public transport or trains for them, they would be able to return easily.
Workers rush to Dhaka after getting phone calls from factory authorities
From 12 noon to 6 pm on Saturday, there was a huge crowd of workers crossing the Gabtali Bridge on foot. Ninety percent of them were garment workers.
The workers said they had to toil hard to reach their workplaces as there was no public transport on roads. They had to pay very high fares as they used rickshaws, trucks, pickups, and auto-rickshaws.
As soon as they got text messages on their mobile phones from factory authorities about the reopening of factories, they were rushing back to work to save their jobs, they added.
Shilpi, hailing from Gazipur, works in a factory in Mirpur 11. She said the office asked them to join work and four members of her family made the dash.
Rahima Begum, who works in a garment factory in Savar, came from Chandpur. She was having difficulty crossing the Gabtali Bridge carrying a bag.
Rahima said, "I have to join my factory tomorrow [Sunday], otherwise, I will lose my job. As the movement of public transport has remained shut, I had to travel in a microbus, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, to reach my workplace by paying very high fares."
Like Rahima, many workers from different parts of the country were returning to Dhaka and its adjacent areas by trucks, microbuses, rickshaws and auto-rickshaws by paying very high fares.
They said they have been asked by their factory authorities to join work as factories would reopen on Sunday.
Regarding the situation at Paturia Ferry Ghat, officer-in-charge of Shibalaya Police Station said there is a pressure of people coming from 21 districts of the south-western region in Paturia and Aricha Ferry Ghat. People were crowding the ferry ghats from early morning.
Adequate security measures have been ensured in the two ghat areas to control the situation, he added.
Md Zillur Rahman, deputy general manager of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC) Aricha office, said there were six ferries in operation on the Paturia-Daulatdia route and three on the Aricha-Kazirhat route.
He commented that a large number of passengers were crossing the route in each ferry.
Manikganj Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Abdul Latif said a mobile court of the district administration is working to implement a strict lockdown.
Large crowds of people from Sirajganj and other northern areas returning to their workplaces in Dhaka were seen at various points on the western link highway of Bangabandhu Bridge and regional roads. These people were travelling crammed in trucks, microbuses, pickups and ambulances. The occasional rain was adding to the suffering of these people.
From Saturday morning till noon, the same scene was seen in Chauddagram, Sonagazi, Paduar Bazar, Alekharchar, Nimsar, Chandina, Elliotganj, and Gauripur areas of Comilla section of the highway.