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An industry at war with itself

Protest is Bangladesh garment workers' only option

Garment workers protest in Dhaka Garment workers protest in Dhaka
  • ucanews.com reporters, Dhaka and Naryanganj
  • Bangladesh
  • September 18, 2012
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Tens of thousands of garment workers have headed back to their factories in the Adamze Export Processing Zone, where machines are abuzz and the remnants of burned tires and vandalized vehicles have been cleared away from the busy adjacent highway.

It’s difficult to imagine that this area of Naryanganj district, around 20 kms outside Dhaka, was nothing short of a war zone on Sunday as workers clashed with police following rumors that two of their colleagues had been killed.

Protesters stormed a police post and vandalized six vehicles, five of which belonged to police. This was the worst rioting since June, when workers demanding a pay rise took to the streets and hundreds of factory owners closed their doors in protests that lasted more than a week.

The June riots, in turn, followed the killing in March of labor leader Aminul Islam, allegedly by intelligence agents.

Police responded to Sunday’s riot by firing rubber bullets and tear gas. About 50 people including police and journalists were injured.

“We had heard that our colleague Shahin was stabbed to death by muggers and that police did not take proper action. Later, we found he was not dead and we backtracked on the protest,” said Agun Rahman, a worker from the Epic Garments factory, where Sunday’s protests began.

Rahman said that factory workers endure long shifts from 10 to 16 hours a day, and are often targeted by muggers on their way home at night.

Shariful Islam, a factory worker from the Adamze zone where clothes for global brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and H&M are manufactured, says life for workers is insecure.

“I’ve lost a mobile phone to muggers, and police didn’t take any steps. This time we came out and protested,” he said.

Industrial police official Mahbub Alam said workers should inform police of criminal complaints and should not take to the streets. He added that police would file cases against rioters.

“No one can take the law into their own hands," he said. "We will prosecute thousands of laborers for blocking roads, attacking police and vandalizing vehicles.”

Thriving on the availability of cheap labor and increased foreign investment, Bangladesh has become the second largest exporter of clothing in the world – second only to China. Last year, it recorded about US$19 billion worth of exports.

The garment sector employs 5.5 million people, 60 percent of them women. Garment work is a socially acceptable form of employment for women in this conservative Muslim country.

Violence and protests are nothing new for the sector, whose workers earn a paltry US$37 a month.

Unrest is often ignited by stories of workers’ sufferings over low pay, unpaid wages, lack of adequate facilities, abusive work environments and sudden termination of employment.

On Friday several hundred workers formed a human chain outside the National Press Club in Dhaka to protest against unjust termination and the physical abuse of workers by factory owners.

Jubeda Khatun, 27, said she felt fortunate to earn 5,000 taka (US$61) a month, until she was fired without cause.

She said the factory owner fired her after a group of fellow workers staged a protest over their own termination. In total, 185 workers were fired without cause, she said.

Sagar Sheikh, another worker, says he lost his job after taking sick leave.

Other workers say that while the factory owners and the government earn billions of dollars annually, workers see few benefits as the cost of living increases and the government remains adamant against raising the minimum wage of $37 per month.

“We have no option except protest," said worker Ashik Islam. "House rents have risen three times this year and price hikes have hit every daily essential. We struggle to maintain a family, let alone save for the future."

Islam Hossain, managing director at Sharmin Fashion Ltd., says he ensures the rights of the workers according to government rules and that if any workers feel that these are inadequate, they should find careers in another profession.

“If the workers say we are depriving them and demand more, we can’t help. I feel their wage is low to live a decent life, but they are free to choose any other job,” Hossain said.

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