Low-income people hit hard by COVID-19 outbreak wait for collecting relief materials amid a shutdown in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 5, 2020. (Str/Xinhua)

DHAKA (Xinhua) — The COVID-19 pandemic has come as a big blow to the Bangladesh’s millions of garment workers as international brands have cancelled orders worth 3.18 billion U.S. dollars, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thursday.

Bangladesh has raised the issue of cancellation of orders by the international buyers days after thousands of the country’s readymade garment or RMG factories resumed operations amid experts’ warnings of a potential new surge in COVID-19 infections.

Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen raised the issue on Wednesday while Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands Sigrid Kaag called him to talk about the impact of COVID-19 and discuss a way forward, Foreign Ministry spokesman Md Tohidul Islam said here Thursday.

“About 3.18 billion U.S. dollars worth of orders have already been cancelled or suspended by the international buyers, already affecting 1,150 factories and 2.28 million workers,” Momen was quoted as saying during his telephonic discussion with the Dutch minister.

According to the spokesman, Momen requested the Dutch minister to ensure that buyers and brands from the Netherlands do not cancel their orders with RMG factories of Bangladesh.

Minister Kaag assured the Bangladeshi minister that the Dutch buyers will not cancel or suspend their orders from the Bangladeshi RMG factories, he added.

Braving the COVID-19 pandemic, over 2,000 RMG factories in the industrial belts in and around capital Dhaka and elsewhere in the country resumed operations gradually since Sunday on a limited scale amid the nationwide lockdown.

Of the country’s 7,602 garment factories, some 2,356 reportedly have been running operation as of Wednesday.

Of those running factories, around 1,300 are located in the industrial belts in Savar, Ashulia, Gazipur and Narayanganj on the outskirts of capital Dhaka.

Raising fears of a rapid outbreak of the COVID-19, even on Wednesday thousands of garment workers returned to work in the Dhaka surrounding industrial belts, defying instructions of the authorities for not coming from outside the capital city.

Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said no one would be allowed to enter Dhaka from outside for work but the influx of workers happened just a day after he made this warning.

He asked owners to run factories on a limited scale with workers available now in the city.

Tens of thousands of RMG workers left Dhaka after Bangladesh announced a countrywide COVID-19 lockdown effective from March 26.

Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) President Rubana Huq had earlier told journalists that their factories reopened ensuring all necessary health measures for the workers.

She said they also urged workers outside Dhaka not to return, with a message that their wages for this month will be deposited to their accounts.

Garment sector accounts for around 80 percent of Bangladesh’s about 40 billion U.S. dollars annual exports and generates employment for some four million workers while women make up around 80 percent of the garment workforce.

According to a latest government order, garment factories can resume operations but should ensure first the safety of their employees and workers.

Bangladesh last Thursday extended the ongoing lockdown of offices and workplaces to May 5, but softened its restrictions on factories to pave the way for reopening despite the COVID-19 situation in the country.

Bangladesh on Thursday confirmed another five deaths from COVID-19, bringing the total number of fatalities in the country to 168 since March 18.

Also on Thursday 564 more people were tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total cases in the country to 7,667.

Story by Naim-Ul-Karim