A tense situation has been prevailing in the country's industrial sector following the labour unrest in the garment sector that left at least three persons dead and over 300 injured in last three days.
The workers started demonstrating after authorities failed to meet their demands, which include higher wages and benefits, one day off per week and an end to forced overtime, said labor leader Belayet Hossain.
Workers are often forced to work seven days a week or late into the night to meet production deadlines, Hossain added.
"We have joined the protest as we are paid pittance for our hard work," said Kamal Hussain, a garment worker who was demonstrating with about 100 others in Uttara, just outside Dhaka.
A textile worker earns about $22 a month in Bangladesh. Hossain said they were seeking at least a 30 percent raise.
More than 100 vehicles were damaged in the violence that first erupted on Monday in and around the capital, Dhaka, after factory owners called in police to break up demonstrations by workers demanding better pay and benefits.
The demonstrations have left dozens of factories ransacked and burnt and the government has deployed the elite Rapid Action Battalion force and paramilitary troops to reinforce security at factories.
Fearing further violence, several garment factories in different parts of the country remained closed on Wednesday. Only a few garment factories were seen open under special security cordon in city's Mirpur, Tejgaon and Malibag areas.
Bangladesh has about 2,500 garment factories employing about 1.8 million workers, mostly women.
The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) has called on the Bangladesh government to undertake an urgent enquiry into the root causes of the violent uprising, focusing in particular on the following problems:
-excessively long working hours;
-low rates of basic earnings;
-abuses in piece rate payments;
-the late payment of wages;
-the use of child labour;
-issues of structural and fire safety in the sector;
-the corrupt police practice of charging workers on the flimsiest of evidence;
-the practice of supervisors acting as labour contractors and illegally raking off a percentage of wages;
- the practice of using hired goons to terrorise and intimidate workers;
-the behaviour of the police and other paramilitary forces when unrest occurs.
The workers took a more direct approach.
The following is from the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation.
Bangladesh Employers Told to Stop Destroying Garment Industry
As riots by angry workers continue to sweep through Bangladesh’s export garment sector, wayward employers have been told to stop destroying the image of Bangladesh, the future of the industry, and the livelihoods of the millions of workers that produce their wealth.
In two days of violent unrest, over 200 factories have been destroyed and scores of vehicles have been set on fire. Two workers have died and hundreds have been injured.
Says Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the Brussels-based International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation: “We have repeatedly warned of the growing frustration at the payment of starvation wages, the excessive hours of work, the cheating on piece work and the falsifying of overtime rates, the abusive treatment and the appalling health and safety conditions.
“But the employers association, BGMEA, has brushed aside the notion that the violence is the result of low wages and poor conditions, claiming that workers were ‘well paid and enjoyed good conditions’.
“Unfortunately, this sort of head-in-the-sand attitude is undermining the huge efforts that have been made to try to stabilise and grow the industry in the post-MFA climate”.
“Are employers blind – or is this some conspiracy on their part?”, queried Mr. Kearney. “The BGMEA is adding insult to injury and ought to apologise to workers for such outrageous statements”.
Says Mr. Kearney: “According to the employers’ association, the violence is been carried out by ‘miscreants dictated by a vested quarter, who are waged a war against the economy’. In reality it is employers who are waging a war against workers, imposing a regime which is beyond human endurance. It is employers who routinely call in hired goons to terrorise and intimidate workers who demand better conditions.
“Workers in the industry are subjected to appalling exploitation. Last year the government legalised a 72-hour work week, but the reality is even harsher. Even on Fridays, which is supposed to be their weekly day of rest, millions of workers can be found working an 18-hour day. Sometimes workers are forced to work around the clock.
“And what reward do these workers receive ? A legal minimum wage of Taka 930 (less than 14USD). Even this pittance is not paid to everyone. When I was last in Dhaka I heard of a worker who after 29, 12-hour days last month earned Taka 400 - less than half the legal minimum. Workers from one of the factories that was torched said they had not been paid for two months.
“In order to earn this pitiful wage workers have to put their lives at risk. Some 425 workers have been killed and 2,399 have been injured in 24 accidents since 1990.
“Last April, the Spectrum factory collapsed, leaving 65 workers dead and 85 seriously injured. Earlier this year, four appalling accidents occurred in the space of only two weeks. On February 23, a fire at the KTS Textile Industries factory killed 61 workers, some as young as twelve, and left about 100 injured. On February 25 twenty-two workers were killed and 50 injured when the five-story Phoenix Building collapsed. On February 25, fifty-seven workers were injured when a transformer exploded at the Imam Group building and workers are unable to get out through the narrow exits. And on March 6, three workers were killed and approximately 50 injured when a fire caused by an electrical short circuit at a building housing Sayem Fashions and Radiant Sweaters.
The ITGLWF has called on the BGMEA and BKMEA to repudiate the statements of those who would blame anyone but employers and to support action to clean up the industry, starting with an urgent independent enquiry into the root causes of the violence.
The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation is a global union federation bringing together 220 affiliated organisations in 110 countries with a combined membership of 10 million workers.