Apart from workers, scores of mid-level managers in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector have lost their jobs amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But most of these job losses went unreported and uncompensated, industry insiders have said.
The sudden job losses have caused many of these professionals to undergo severe challenges.
Some of them have moved to their village homes with families, while some have opted for sub-letting houses to cope with the income losses. Some of them have sold assets and/or borrowed from others, as their savings dried up.
Even those who were well-paid have brought about significant changes to their purchasing habits after becoming jobless. Some of them said they try not to buy anything that is not essential for living.
Liton Mia, 44, a former production manager at a garment factory and the sole breadwinner in the family, lost his job during the pandemic and now sells watermelons at a roadside cart in Joydebpur, Gazipur.
After having worked in a factory for a decade, his salary reached Tk41,000. However, at the onset of the lockdown during the first wave, his salary was halted for a few months. This was followed by a 40% pay cut for some time.
In January 2021, he was retrenched. Now, to meet ends, he has found selling watermelon as his last resort.
Similarly, Babul Ahmed, 40, a former sales manager at an RMG buying house in the capital's Uttara area, moved to his new flat in Agargaon recently. He was burdened with debts as he had taken out loans from banks to buy the flat.
Before losing job in June last year, he had a 30% pay cut for three consecutive months. As a result, his six-digit salary came down to Tk70,000.
RMG exports saw a drastic fall due to cancellations of orders from key markets in America and Europe that had been ravaged by waves of the Covid-19 attack. The country's export earnings from the apparel sector dropped by $6.1 billion to $27.9 billion in the 2019-20 fiscal year from $34 billion in the previous year.
The industry was the prime beneficiary of the government's stimulus and wage support schemes on condition that employers would protect the jobs of their employees. Even then, job cuts took place and mid-level staff members were left with none to speak for them.
The government has received funds to the tune of €91 million from the European Union but the funds are for workers only. The funds have not been used much. Around 7,000 workers have been given money from the funds.
During retrenchment, as per labour laws, employees should be informed in advance and paid at least one month's salary.
According to a survey jointly conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB), about 232 factories – approximately 6.9% of the altogether 3,342 factories – were closed down between December 2019 and September 2020.
Besides, around 3.5 lakh workers in the RMG sector lost jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the joint survey.
Although sample enterprises reported 2.7% layoffs of workers, total job loss during this period was as high as 13.95%, CPD Research Director Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem said while presenting the findings.
No data, so no liability
There has been no study on layoffs, dismissals or retrenchment or pay cut of staff.
Md Nasir Uddin Ahmed, inspector general at the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, said the department does not have specific data on the retrenchment of staff in the RMG industry during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The CPD survey reveals that 3.33% of staff in RMG factories in Dhaka were retrenched amid the pandemic from December 2019 to June 2020.
The Business Standard (TBS) contacted the authorities of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). The BGMEA does not have any data or study on particularly the retrenchment of staff.
Mohiuddin Rubel, a director of the BGMEA, acknowledged that mid-level managers might be going through bad times, but said he cannot comment on the issue since he does not have any data.
"We are not aware of the issue of retrenchment. Mid-level staff figures are probably 1% of the total employment in the sector. What we at the BGMEA are concerned about is whatever happens in terms of retrenchment must comply with labour laws," he said.
Some retrenched employees of Ha-Meem Group said they were terminated during the pandemic on the pretext of sluggishness in business, although business was very good even during the dull season.
Sources said around 300 staff with 1.5-8.5 years of experience and who in the past received awards for their performance were also retrenched.
All of them said they were "forced" to resign.
AK Azad, managing director of Ha-Meem Group and former president of the FBCCI, neither answered calls nor replied to mobile phone messages when TBS tried to reach him for his comment on the issue.
Dr Nazneen Ahmed, senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said companies do not want to share reports of dismissals or retrenchment with others because they would otherwise have to provide compensation and other benefits to those who have lost their jobs.
"Retrenchment or reducing manpower is not a crime. In fact, it is quite normal in business, as a company can reduce its staff when the business is not going well. The issue is whether or not they are provided with all the facilities," Nazneen Ahmed said.
"Layoffs of mid-level managers may have taken place in buying houses, but there was no significant layoff in RMG factories, especially in A-category ones," according to AHM Rezaul Hoque (Rumi), consultant at Essential Clothing Limited.
B and C-category factories have been the worst sufferers due to a decline in sub-contracts from A-category factories. In this situation, buying houses and small factories have suffered the most and they might have had layoffs of mid-level staff, he pointed out.
Rumi referred to the lack of required skills in mid-level staff and stressed that they need to improve soft skills to survive any future shocks.
A former cutting officer at Apex Textile Printing Mills Limited was called to the office on 30 July last year and retrenched. At present, he stays at a relative's house. He has sent his family to his village home.
He claimed that around 170 employees of the company were retrenched on the day. The number rose to around 300 by August, which was nearly 15% of the total employees.
Zahur Ahmed, managing director of the company, denied allegations of any retrenchment.
Forhad Hossain, head of HR and admin of the company, told TBS that "not a single employee was sacked, dismissed or retrenched during the pandemic".
"We have around 2,500 staff and a few staff lost their jobs as they did not come to the office after our factories opened….We always ensure compliance in recruitment and retrenchment," he added.
Deputy Attorney General Imran Ahmed Bhuiyan, a labour law specialist, said there are specific rules to be followed in labour laws. Retrenched staff can file cases with the labour court if these procedures are not followed, he added.
The positive news is some organisations have recruited the retrenched staff again, which was revealed in the recent CPD survey too.
Referring to the survey, Dr Moazzem told TBS that 30% of the companies that had retrenched staff recruited them again.
Palmal Group is one of those companies. Some employees, who were retrenched during the pandemic, told TBS that they were assured during the retrenchment that they would be recruited again when the business turned better.
Retrenched staff estimated that around 1,400 employees were laid off but more than half of them were recruited again after a few months.
TBS tried to reach Palmal Group Managing Director Nafis Sikder for his comments, but he could not be reached over the phone.