Some time back, the Penn State University’s Centre for Global Workers’ Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) came out with a report which underlined that more than one million garment workers in Bangladesh have already been fired or furloughed or temporarily suspended from work following large-scale order cancellations by the global buyers.
The tension, already brewing amongst the thousands of garment workers in the garment manufacturing industry of the country, is now starting to manifest bringing back the memories of last year when agitated workers thronged the streets across Bangladesh in demand of minimum wage hike, which brought the thriving readymade garment (RMG) sector of the country to a grinding halt.
Thousands of workers joined the protests demanding wage hikes and removing pay disparity. The agitated workers clashed with police, leaving scores of law enforcers and workers injured and one dead. In the wake of that protest, Bangladesh Government revised the pay structure for garment industry workers on 13 January.
Mass dismissals as part of a widespread crackdown following the protests have seen approximately 12,000 workers allegedly being dismissed. As per some accounts, the garment exporters suffered substantial business losses due to the workers’ agitation.
Now as the coronavirus outbreak in Bangladesh continues to spread and a countrywide lockdown enforced by the Government has been extended till 25 April, it has rendered hundreds of apparel exporters to shut down their respective manufacturing units (excepting those that are engaged in making the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), needed by those who are at the forefront of fighting the contagion like doctors and paramedical staff), leaving workers to stare at a bleak future.
The situation started turning worse in and around Dhaka on 12 April when a group of workers from some RMG factories in Gazipur blocked the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway to pile pressure on owners for paying due salaries.
Workers from Trust Knitwear Industries Ltd. in Bhabanipur started protests around 9 am over the news of the authorities firing the workers without paying their salaries for March, said Inspector Jahangir Hossain of Gazipur Industry Police. An hour or so before this, workers from Stylist and New West Fashions Ltd. in Bhogra took to the streets around 8 am, demanding their wages due for March.
“At one point, they blocked the Dhaka-Mymensingh Highway, but later left the streets after the owners promised to pay their wages,” claimed Md. Jalaluddin, Additional Superintendent of Gazipur Industrial Police.
Shahina Begum, a knitting operator at the New West factory explaining her plight, said, “We don’t have any food at home. We need to pay our house rent and buy grocery. We are about to die from starvation.”
Meanwhile, as per another report, Savar – one of the garment manufacturing hubs too witnessed workers hitting the streets. Garment workers of at least 11 factories in Savar took to the streets demanding wages of the previous month.
Hundreds of workers have demonstrated in front of the factories in Hemayetpur, Olail, Fulbaria, Rajason and different areas of Ashulia since Sunday morning. Later, many of them called off their agitation after the authorities of some factories assured payment of wages within a short time, claimed Khairul Mamun Mintu, Organising Secretary of Garment Workers Trade Union Kendra.
The workers demonstrated in front of some garment factories demanding wages, said Inspector Javed Masud of Ashulia Police Station. “Authorities of some of the small factories have gone into hiding. However, we are looking into the matter,” Javed added.
What’s even more worrying is that the workers’ agitations are not just limited to Dhaka and its adjoining manufacturing hubs. Sometime back, at least 25 people were injured as police and garment workers reportedly clashed in Mymensingh’s Bhaluka. The workers were demonstrating for their salaries for the month of March. In Bhaluka, hundreds of workers of Crown Wears (Pvt.) Ltd. came to the factory at Jamirdia Masterbari at around 7 am and found a notice hanging at the gate, said Nurun Nabi, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) of Bhaluka Industrial Police.
Seeing the notice, the workers got incensed and gathered in front of the factory’s gate and started demonstrating. They blocked the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway. They also alleged that some 2,000 workers were terminated who did not join the work.
On receiving the information, police rushed to the spot and talked to the workers. Superintendent of Industrial Police, Saheb Ali Pathan met the factory authorities, and it was finalised that the workers’ salaries would be paid soon. But the workers refused it and continued their agitation, informed the ASP.
They then began throwing bricks at police and the factory. Police swung into action to bring the situation under control at around 9 am. They lobbed teargas shells and fired rubber bullets to bring the situation under control. Some workers even alleged that a group of outsiders, believed to be loyal to the factory authorities and security men and staffers of the factory, attacked them with bamboo sticks.
They also claimed over 20 workers were injured in the ensuing police action. The present turn of events has emerged as a matter of concern for the garment exporters, many of whom have expressed fears that things could go out of control and snowball into a social unrest, unless urgent precautionary measures are not undertaken.