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Bangladeshi garment workers fired over wage protests

Thousands lose jobs in 'inhuman' backlash from employers after winning minimum wage increase

Bangladeshi garment workers fired over wage protests

A policeman chases garment workers demonstrating for a fair monthly minimum wage in the Ashulia suburb of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Jan. 8. Thousands of workers have been fired for their alleged involvement in the wage protests. (ucanews.com photo)

More than 5,000 garment workers have been fired for their alleged involvement in recent street protests over wages in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka and nearby districts.

The government raised the monthly minimum wage for garment workers after weeks of labor unrest in December and January that paralyzed industrial hubs in Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj.

The new minimum monthly wage was fixed at 8,000 taka (US$95) on Jan. 13, up from 5,300 taka in 2013.

In recent weeks, thousands of workers have been fired and faced intimidation and lawsuits, according to workers and trade unionists.

Muhammad Arif, 29, a sewing operator, was among workers fired by management at FNF Trend Fashions’ factory in Dhaka.

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“On Jan. 17, factory management hung a list of 96 workers terminated on the entrance and issued a notice that police cases have been lodged against all. None of the workers participated in the recent unrest over the wage hike,” Arif, employed in the garment industry for nearly 12 years, told ucanews.com.

“We realized the action against us was not because of the protests but because we recently enrolled in a list of workers to form a trade union in the factory. Every day and night, law enforcers patrol the area and we are living in fear.

“My wife is also a garment worker and together we run the family. Without my job it will be very difficult to manage the family and support my elderly parents at their village home.”

Labor groups claim the actual number of terminated workers is about 7,000 and about 30 cases have been filed against more than 3,000 named and unnamed workers at police stations.

“Factory management say the terminations are temporary and warned workers against any action over the move in the Labor Court. Bangladeshi workers run the industry with their sweat and blood, but factory owners are largely ignorant and against the welfare of workers,” Monzur Moin, international affairs secretary at the Dhaka-based Garment Workers Trade Union Center, told ucanews.com.

“Factory owners didn’t like raising the minimum wage even though it is still among the lowest in the world. Moreover, they are still opposing trade unions, which they see as a threat to the ongoing exploitation of workers.”

Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said the number of fired workers is much lower than that claimed by labor groups.

“It is true some workers have been fired for involvement in unrest, violence and vandalism, but the number is much lower than being reported. Factories have every right to take punitive action against anarchy and any anti-industry motives. We have asked BGMEA members and police not to harass any innocent worker over the issue,” Rahman told ucanews.com.

Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, said the termination of workers was “inhuman, unjust and irrational.”

“Garment factory owners have yet to become democratic and they don’t want to see workers enjoy their due rights. The government needs to realize and take appropriate measures so that these burning issues are resolved, otherwise a full-blown crisis might threaten the very existence of this vital industry,” Father Gomes told ucanews.com.

Bangladesh’s US$25 billion garment industry is the second largest in the world after China thanks to huge investment and cheap labor.

About 5,000 garment factories employ more than four million workers, mostly poor rural women. The industry is Bangladesh’s economic lifeline as the largest industrial employer and highest annual foreign exchange earner.

However, the industry has been plagued by poor labor practices, unsafe working conditions and exploitation of workers for years. Over the past two decades, more than 2,000 workers have died in factory fires and collapses including the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy that killed more than 1,100 workers.

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