‘Blaming the victims’ as a concept is often used by researchers to describe a situation where the victims are considered responsible for any incident. Usually, a person is considered as a victim when someone’s action or circumstance hurts him or her. Blaming the victim occurs when people hold the victim responsible for his or her suffering. When people blame the victim, they attribute the cause of the victim’s suffering to the behaviours or characteristics of the victim, instead of attributing the cause to a perpetrator or situational factors. The situation of our garment workers a few days ago again refers to this trajectory where people have started blaming these groups of people for increasing the scope of spread of COVID-19 who were compelled to choose their jobs ahead of their security. But, before we blame them, we need to comprehend the circumstances under which they were compelled to act in that way.
The people of Bangladesh have remained under lockdown in response to the government’s announcement of a long shutdown of public transport services, offices, workplaces and educational institutions until the 14th of April. The main intention of the government is to ensure that the people stay at home so that the risk of the spread of COVID-19 gets reduced. The army and law enforcement agencies along with the civil administration and peoples’ representatives have been working effortlessly to keep people at homes. In such a situation the news of the reopening of the garment industries has made people anxious as thousands of garments workers returned to the capital Dhaka and its adjacent areas. This is a terrifying decision on the part of garment owners.Through different media sources, we have seen thousands of garments workers to return to their workplaces on foot as the public transports have remained shut in the country. Many of them walked for 18 to 28 hours without break to reach their destination. Overcrowding of garment workers on ferries or the roads has drawn the attention of the citizens. We have seen these people travelling through trucks, auto rickshaws and vans. Many were even compelled to walk for miles to reach their destination. Despite witnessing their miseries many of us have been blaming them as they have increased the possibility of spread the COVID-19 infection within them and at the community.
Now a pertinent question is: who should hold responsible for this incident? The simple answer is that horrified decision of the garment owners has not only pushed these workers at risk of getting infected by COVID-19 but also has forced them to increase the possibility of infection at the community. A couple of issues are very critical in this regard. Once these people went to their villages they might have come in association with many people who were carrying the germs. Thus, some of them may have been passing through the incubation period of this virus. Had they stayed at home, they might have transmitted the germs within their family members which are also very unfortunate. But, now, they have been placed in a wider public place where they came across thousands of co-workers. Thus, effortless hard work of the government and different agencies may find them producing nothing in their attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19.
From the perspective of the owners of the garment, they could argue that they are at the verge of facing tremendous economic recession as most of them have lost their orders from the buyers. These industries are indeed at risk of their survival. But, at the same time, they should consider that Bangladesh is not the only country where the garment industries are getting affected by COVID-19. Rather, the economy of the whole world has been experiencing a great downfall. This is why our government is very much concerned about the issue. They have already announced a TK 50 billion economic relief package for the exporting industries. Among the allocation, most of the fund is supposed to go to the $34 billion RMG sector which contributes to more than 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s export.
One of the preconditions of this allocation is that the owners could only be able to use the funds to pay the salaries of the workers even if the factories remain shut due to the global economic downfall caused by the pandemic. Unfortunately, the allocation has failed to motivate the garment factory owners to extend the deadline of the shutdown at least up to the government announced deadline. Being forced to return, the majority of the garment workers neither wore masks nor followed the rules of social distancing as many people were walking together on the roads or many of them were travelling in a truck or on a ferry together. Therefore, these people have made them quite susceptible to COVID-19 infection.
I strongly believe that such a decision of the garment owners was an attempt to create pressure on the government. As we all know that they wanted a one-time incentive from the government. However, the allocation that has been announced by the government is in the form of a loan where they will require paying 2% surcharge. They did not accept such a decision of the government delightedly. On the other hand, the BGMEA and BKMEA have been found acting awkwardly. When a large number of garments workers returned to join their work, the president of BGMEA made an open request to all owners to keep their factories closed at least until the 11th of April. She should have made this request a couple of days back. In that case, thousands of workers would not have returned putting them at risk of getting infected.
Even, we have noticed a chaotic situation when the workers went to join their workplaces in the morning of the 5th of April. Most of the factories hanged a notice of the extension of the shutdown until 11th of April. Workers did not find any supervisor to get appropriate information about the salary of March though BGMEA president assured them of the salary. In such a situation, these workers have been passing time with anxiety to determine their next course of action. We have seen many of the workers to express their concern about their family members who reside in the villages if they do not get their salary. One encouraging fact is that the Governor of Bangladesh Bank in the presence of Prime Minister has reassured that these workers would get their salary of March and April on time. Despite the government’s tremendous effort, due to the arbitrary decision of the garment owners, thousands of workers have put their lives at risk by choosing their jobs ahead of their safety which is a painful decision.It is no denying the fact that export-oriented industries in general, and garments in particular, are one of the main pillars of our economy. The amount of foreign currency that these industries earn by exporting products is helping the growth of our economy. But, we all should comprehend the intensity of the pandemic. Along with the government, all citizens of the country are sympathetic to the people who have remained engaged in these industries as they are going to face serious challenges in the future. Considering the enormity of the situation the government has already announced a gigantic amount as an incentive. Therefore, the owners of garment industries do not have any right to push their workers’ life in susceptibility.
When World Health Organizations, doctors, public health specialists and government have been apprehending tough days in the upcoming two weeks, the arbitrary decision of the garment workers has pushed us towards a further catastrophe. If the infection spreads at a wider scale, it will turn into a catastrophe. Therefore, we should not blame the victims who are compelled to return because of the arbitrary decision of their owners and by fear of losing the job. When our Prime Minister is working day and night to save the country, such terrified behaviour of garment owners demands immediate punishment. Therefore, instead of blaming these people, we all should request the government to take immediate action to save the workers not only from getting infected but also help them by making sure that they get their salaries on time.
The writer is a Professor of Public Administration and an Additional Director of the Institutional Quality Assurance Cell (IQAC) at the University of Rajshahi.