Tens of thousands of workers walked out of factories this month in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia which make clothes for top western brands such as Gap, Zara and H&M, prompting concerns over supply during the holiday season.
The protests were sparked by the sacking of 121 workers, but soon evolved into a demand for the trebling of workers’ pay from the current monthly minimum of 5,300 taka (£54).
More than 50 factories were closed last week to try to contain the protests, which escalated after police fired rubber bullets that injured 10 demonstrators, according to labour leader Taslima Akhter.
Police have branded the protests illegal and said they had arrested 30 workers including seven union leaders, as well as a television reporter covering the unrest.
On Tuesday, they said factory owners had sacked around 1,500 workers and resumed operations.
“All the factories have resumed their operations. Some 90% of the workers have joined work,” said Nur Nabi, assistant superintendent of police.
“Around 1,500 workers have been sacked [by the owners]. The owners have filed five cases against the unruly workers,” he told AFP.
Many of the sacked workers discovered their fate only after arriving at work to see a list of those affected posted on factory gates.
The monthly minimum wage for Bangladeshi textile workers was raised in 2013 after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex which killed 1,134 people. It triggered massive protests and international scrutiny of the industry.
But it remains one of the lowest wages in the world, less than one-fifth of what some campaigners estimate to be the country’s living wage.
The Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation said the number of sacked workers was actually far higher, about 3,500, with dozens more labour organisers forced into hiding.
The head of the federation, Babul Akhter, said authorities had shut down the protests by using a controversial wartime-era law intended to deal with threats to state security.
“They used [the] Special Powers Act to detain union leaders and workers,” he said. “Up to 3,500 workers have been sacked and 50 leaders have gone into hiding.”
The Ashulia police chief said only those involved in violent protests had been arrested.
“When a worker is suspended or sacked by a factory owner, they don’t easily get a job again,” Taslima Akhter said.
“The owners make a list of those workers and distribute their names and photos close to the particular factory. They never get jobs again in that area.”
She said the 5,300 taka workers were paid each month was supposed to cover healthcare, transport, rent and food. But the wage had not increased since 2013 and was “not enough to survive on”.
“If workers need to rent a room, they have to pay between 2,500 and 4,500 taka,” she said. “And the price of daily products is very high. If they want to go to a good doctor, they also have to pay more.”
Shawkat Ali, a worker at the Rose Dresses factory in Ashulia, was among those who lost his job. He said he needed a pay increase because so much of his wage each month was spent on rent.
“I can’t buy food with 1,500 Bangladeshi taka each month,” he said. “I am ill, but I can’t buy medicine.”
He estimated around 250 workers had been sacked from his factory and another 13 were facing criminal charges.
Taslima Akhter said workers had returned to their shifts for the moment, and that labour leaders were trying to free those arrested.
“Factory owners and the government have tried to stop these protests by force, by police … and by sacking workers,” she said.
“The situation is not good, workers are living in fear, but workers’ organisations will keep protesting and demanding the unconditional release of arrested leaders and workers.”
On Friday, Nazmul Huda, a TV journalist covering the demonstrations was also arrested for allegedly “spread[ing] false and provocative news ”, Indian media reported.
The protests were the latest blow to the impoverished country’s $30bn garment industry after a series of attacks on foreigners and religious minorities in Bangladesh.
Garment manufacturing makes up 80% of Bangladesh’s exports and a prolonged interruption would have a major impact on the economy.
Bangladesh’s 4,500 garment factories have a woeful history of poor pay and conditions for their four million workers, and protests occur frequently.
The Rana Plaza tragedy triggered international outrage, forcing US and European clothing brands to improve deplorable safety conditions at their supplier factories.
Author: Michael Safi