Factory workers in Bangladesh could go hungry as global fashion brands have cancelled or delayed orders worth $138 million due to coronavirus, manufacturers said on Thursday.
More than 100 Bangladeshi factories have already lost orders, manufacturers said, as retail sales plummeted globally and giants like Zara owner Inditex and H&M temporarily closed stores in Europe - the current epicentre of the flu-like virus.
"We are totally dependent on our export proceeds," said Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, which has more than 4,000 members, describing coronavirus as the "curse of the century".
"(Our) plea to the brands has been to continue taking our orders until June. And to support us in any form so that the workers don't go hungry ... how will their lives and livelihood be sustained if there are cancellations?"
Bangladesh, the world's second largest garment supplier after China, is heavily-reliant on top fashion brands. The industry employs more than 4 million people, mostly women, and accounts for more than 80% of its exports.
The world's wealthiest nations ramped up spending and poured unprecedented aid into the traumatised global economy on Thursday as coronavirus cases ballooned, prompting widespread emergency lockdowns.
H&M said it had been hit by a drop in global demand but it was in close and transparent dialogue with its suppliers.
"Our long-term commitment to suppliers will remain intact," a spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.
"In this extreme situation we need to respond fast, together with our business partners, and take decisions that can be difficult in the short-term, but necessary in the long-term ... (and) find solutions that are suitable for all parties."
Labour activists said no workers had been fired as a result of coronavirus but they were afraid of losing their jobs.
"These workers live hand-to-mouth and they are panicked because they have heard that orders are being cancelled," Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity.
Akter said workers were also scared of catching coronavirus, with Bangladesh reporting 17 cases and one death by Thursday.
The International Labour Organization said in emailed comments that protective equipment, flexible working and better hygiene procedures were needed in Bangladesh's garment factories to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Huq said factories were exercising utmost caution and practising good hygiene.
The government said this month that it would assess the economic damage caused by coronavirus before deciding on support packages for business.