The Nation and Magnum Foundation are partnering on a visual chronicle of untold stories as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States and the rest of the world—read more from The Invisible Front Line.—The Editors
I still remember that colorful day, over three months ago now, when hundreds of young women and men gathered in the streets of Ashulia, an industrial zone outside the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, to celebrate International Women’s Day. The young people marching, carrying banners, and chanting slogans were standing in solidarity with the 4 million Bangladeshi garment workers who for years have been struggling to win livable wages, safe working conditions, and dignity for their hard labor. It was in this country in 2013 that the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed more than 1,100 garment workers, and activists have been fighting for years to ensure this kind of man-made disaster never happens again. As I made my way through the rally, photographing and taking in the enthusiasm of the crowd, it felt like the workers’ cause was only gaining strength. But only two days later, on March 8, the first case of Covid-19 was identified in Bangladesh, and everything changed.
The coronavirus crisis has sent the world economy shuddering to a halt, and Bangladesh’s garment workers have been left particularly vulnerable: Over $3.5 billion worth of international orders have been lost in the country’s garment industry as a result of the global downturn, and half a million workers are at risk of losing their jobs, a fate that has already befallen more than a million workers.
When the crisis hit our country, everyone started wearing masks. Middle-class Bangladeshis stockpiled months worth of food, and immediately began avoiding crowds, with those able to work from home doing so.
But garment workers haven’t been able to afford this luxury: They continued to go to their factories during the lockdown, and many live in cramped housing that doesn’t allow for the type of social distancing health authorities recommend. When the factories closed for a few days, many garment workers went back to their villages, but the factories are now open again, and because the government has banned passenger transportation, workers continue to come, by car, by foot, and other private transport means. They continue to face the threat of layoffs, wage cuts, and outright wage theft.
I’m a photographer, but I’m also an activist—the two roles are impossible to separate for me. So throughout this crisis, I have tried to document the workers’ lives and their protests as part of a collective effort to bring their situation and their cause to the attention of the wider world. I’ve been taking photographs throughout this crisis, but I’ve also been continuing my work with the workers’ rights organization Bangladesh Garment Sramik Samhati (Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity), organizing meetings on Facebook, and holding discussions on Zoom. We’ve been making images through the cameras on laptops, and workers have been using their cell phones to take their own photos. This is a collaborative effort, and we’ve been adapting our activism to the constraints that the Covid-19 crisis has put in place.
Everything is changing so quickly, and the number of Covid-19 cases are increasing every day in Bangladesh. Over 100,000 people have been infected so far, and over 1,300 have died. Movement is largely shut down, so my work has focused on documenting the real conditions workers and their families are facing.
Despite the lockdown, protests continue: Workers are still losing their jobs; they’re still struggling to be paid what they’re owed; they’re still fighting for health care. During one protest, a worker said, “The government has locked down everything, but they didn’t lock down our stomachs. We don’t have any alternative except coming into the street doing this protest. We don’t even have the possibility to maintain social distancing. We are hungry. We don’t know anything about coronavirus. We want food and wages first.’’
So that’s what we’re fighting for: We have demanded 100 percent wage and health security for workers when their factory is closed. But factory owners, the international companies that buy the garments, and the government are all failing to take up the responsibility to address these issues.
Garment workers are the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy. The garment sector accounts for 84 percent of the export income for the country, but workers are entitled to 0nly a paltry monthly minimum wage that works out to about $95, with the lion’s share of the profits going to the international brands that buy the workers’ output. Garment workers are human beings like anyone else: They have families and dreams for a better life. But these workers have been sacrificing their youth and their health for the development of the country’s economy, and the factory owners, international buyers, and the government treat them as disposable tools in the pursuit of profit.
Throughout this crisis I have seen anger, fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness in the eyes and faces of garment workers, but I have also witnessed the collective strength of workers fighting together for their common good, and the resilience of finding new ways of pushing their cause. It’s up to the government, the factory owners, but above all the international brands that profit off these workers to ensure that they can survive this crisis and can depend on a safe and dignified working environment once the crisis passes.