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Workers, owners struggle with unrest fallout

Arifur Rahaman Tuhin
12 Nov 2023 21:47:38 | Update: 13 Nov 2023 18:05:55
Workers, owners struggle with unrest fallout
Garment workers block a key intersection as they protest in Dhaka on November 12, 2023, demanding a near-tripling of the minimum wage to 23,000 taka ($208) — AFP Photo

Sewing operator Ismail, 28, was sleeping at his home along with his wife Morzina and three-year-old daughter. His sleep was short-lived, as police raided his home in the middle of night last Friday, and took him away.

Morzina later learned from the Ashulia police that her husband has been sent to jail in a case filed against him for allegedly vandalizing Islam Group’s factory in Ashulia.

Speaking to The Business Post while tears streaming down her cheeks, Morzina said, “My baby has been looking for his father since the police took him away. I am just a sewing operator like my husband.

“We have yet to receive our wages for October. The factory we worked in has shut down until further notice. I do not know how I will feed my daughter, and release my husband from jail. He is innocent, and I urge the authorities to release him immediately.”

Readymade garment workers just want a decent wage, and I believe that workers were not involved in vandalizing factories, she added.

Inamul Haq Khan Bablu, one of the leading factory owners in terms of best practices, still does not know why his MBM Fashion was torched and looted during the ongoing workers’ protest. He is confused whether the attackers were his workers, or outsiders.

Inamul, also the managing director of Ananta Group, said, “In the noon of October 30, workers started protesting and we decided to halt production.

“Around 5pm, a group of people forcefully entered my factory carrying iron rods and wooden sticks, and started vandalising everything, including ambulances. The attackers also beat workers, doctors and nurses.”

Adding that an adolescent gang may have been involved in such criminal activities and looting, he said, “They then set fire to my factory, where a worker died. When the fire brigade tried to reach the factory, these culprits blocked off the road and vandalised fire service vehicles.

“I have been involved in the readymade garment industry for the last 30 years. I employ the best practices, and I never faced such a situation. I believe that a certain quarter is trying to create instability in the country’s RMG sector, and the government should investigate this.”

Since October 23, Gazipur, Ashulia, Savar and Mirpur areas became a hot spot of clash as thousands of RMG workers are holding protests, demanding Tk 23,000 minimum wage considering the ongoing severe high inflation.

Where the streets were filled with thousands of workers, and factories were noisy due to the work, tea stalls were full during the tea-time, now the entire areas are almost deserted. Most of the factories closed, workers are yet to receive salary, owners failed to ship goods on time.

Both the owners and workers have no idea when the situation will get resolved. The industry is facing uncertainty amid the ongoing global economic crisis and high inflation in Bangladesh.

Although the protest was peaceful in the beginning, it turned violent from October 29, leaving four people dead and hundreds of others injured. Two factories, including Inamul’s MBM Fashion, were torched, and numerous other establishments were vandalised.

In the first phase of unrest, nearly 500 factories were forced to shut down production.

Although the minimum wage board of the RMG sector fixed Tk 12,500 as the minimum salary for the sector on November 7, workers rejected the proposal, and announced protest. Finally, BGMEA decided to implement labour law’s section 13/1, which means “no work, no pay.”

But the workers continued to protest, vandalised factories, clashed with the police.

According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), 122 factories in Ashulia, Konabari and Mirpur areas’ remain closed to this day.

But according to the apex body, most of the factories are ready to resume production, if workers join their workplaces.

So far, 34 cases have been filed against workers over acts of violence, where thousands have been accused. The police have already arrested over a hundred workers.

Many workers and trade union leaders have fled from home to avoid arrest, but they also do not know how many days they will have to be on the run.

A number of trade union leaders claimed that the police are harassing workers, and sending them to jail in connection with false cases.

“Their [owners and the police] motive is silencing the workers’ voice, and that is why police are creating panic among the workers,” Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre (BGWTUC) Vice President Joly Talukder said.

Speaking to The Business Post, Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre (BGWTUC) Organising Secretary Md Shajhahan said, “The police picked me up on October 29 and interrogated me.

“As a trade union leader, I just raised awareness among the workers about their rights. But the police did not believe this. Since that day, I have not returned to my home.”

Adding that the police are looking for many workers, Shajhahan said, “If you look at the CCTV camera footage, you will see that no workers were involved in the vandalisation and torching of factories.

“So, why are they [the police] harassing the workers? We carried out peaceful protests, and we are continuing in that same way.”

A press statement, issued by the US Department of State Spokesperson Matthew Miller, read, “The USA condemns recent violence against workers in Bangladesh protesting over the minimum wage, as well as the criminalisation of legitimate worker and trade union activities.

“We are also concerned about the ongoing repression of workers and trade unionists. We call on the government of Bangladesh to protect workers’ right to peaceful protest and investigate allegations of false criminal charges against workers and labour leaders.”

It further stated, “Governments must ensure workers are able to exercise their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining without fear of violence, reprisal, or intimidation.

“Through our work in Bangladesh and globally, we are firmly committed to advancing these fundamental human rights.”

The BGMEA, however, claimed that they filed cases against miscreants, not workers.

Adding the owners filed cases to save their factories and workers from the attackers, and the police are arresting only criminals, BGMEA President Faruque Hassan said, “We are committed to protect our workers’ rights.

“Someone misguided the US authority. But the real situation is the criminals also attacked our workers, which left hundreds injured. They beat more than 50 workers in MBM Fashion, and seven are still severely injured. We have the right to protect them, and that is why we filed cases.”

Faruque added, “The Police attacked those who blocked the highway for hours. However, we are highly cautious about the police arresting criminals. If we learn that any innocent worker has been arrested, we speak to the police, and have them released.”

Garment owners claim that outsiders are agitating the workers and instigating their violent behaviour, seeking to reap political advantage from the issue. Owners add that workers have vandalised the indoors of many factories, and it will take time to repair the damage.

BGMEA Vice President Shahidullah Azim said, “We may face order cancellations and costly air freight deliveries. We posted negative export earnings during October and November earnings likely to drop as well.

“Because some larger factories failed to continue production since the illogical and illegal protests started.”