Police Firing on Garment Workers in Bangladesh

(Based on report by Wimal Perera, 15 December, 2010 and inputs from comrades of Revolutionary Workers’ Party of Bangladesh)

There have been a series of protests by garment workers in Bangladesh in the past month. Garment sector accounts for 80% of Bangladesh’s exports and a huge number of workers are employed in this sector. However the working conditions are poor, unsafe and the workers are paid below the minimum wages. Earlier in the month, the workers’ protests were triggered by the refusal of some of Bangladesh’s 4,500 apparel factories to honour a pay deal between the government, employers and the trade unions in July. Under that deal, the minimum wage was to be lifted to about 3000 taka a month, still highly inadequate to sustain the poor, and far below what workers had been demanding. 
One specific target of discontent was the South Korean-owned Youngone factories in Chittagong. Earlier in the week, workers had walked out, demanding the reinstatement of a 250-taka lunch allowance that had been withdrawn when the new wage scheme was implemented. When employees reported for work on 12 December, they found the 11 Youngone factories shut down. Furious workers started gathered support from nearby factories and blocked key roads. Police fired into the crowds, killing four people and injuring at least 150. About 100 workers were injured in other clashes with police at Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in Dhaka and Narayanganj. At least 65 workers were arrested.
A couple of days later a factory fire claimed at least 24 lives. Workers were forced to jump from ninth-floor of the 10-storey factory north of Dhaka because the management had locked the exits.
Despite the police killings, workers continued strikes and protests. About 5,000 garment workers staged a sit-in at the northern manufacturing district of Gazipur, while another 5,000 stopped work at a factory inside the Ashulia EPZ, some 40 kilometres northwest of Dhaka.
Instead of providing minimum wages and safe working conditions to the workers, the State has gone for “tough action” against striking workers. According to media reports, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed instructed “authorities to identify those involved in the unrest and take stern action against them”. Police have already filed false cases against nearly 50,000 workers. On 13 December, a dozen police detectives arrested Garment Workers Unity Forum president Moshrefa Mishu at her home in Dhaka on the charges of instigating workers to go “berserk”. On 16 December, Baharane Sultan Bahar, member of the Dhaka Committee of the Revolutionary Workers' Party of Bangladesh, and President, Jago Bangladesh Garments' Workers' Federation was also arrested. Both activists were tortured in police remand. On 15 December, there was an illegal raid for garments' workers leaders at the central office of the Socialist Party of Bangladesh (BASAD).  
 In late July and early August this year, tens of thousands of garment workers fought pitched battles with notorious Rapid Action Battalion riot police who attacked them with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
The government is determined to keep wages low in order to attract foreign investment. Despite soaring prices and living costs, the textile workers had received no pay rise since the minimum monthly wage was set at 1,662 taka in 2006. After five days of bitter strikes and protests to demand a wage of around 5000 taka, the unions agreed to just 3000 taka and shut down any further industrial action.
Where the new wage scales were implemented, companies applied a “grading system” to underpay workers. One worker, Delwar Hossain, of Mohakhali’s Rahman Garments, explained that despite his more than 12 years’ experience as a machine operator, he had been included in grade five, cutting his wage. For months, the government has been preparing to suppress a renewed wave of strikes and protests. In October, it established an “industrial police” for the “maintenance of law and order in EPZs”. Hasina declared that it would help maintain “smooth and uninterrupted productions” at mills and factories. The ‘economic growth’ achieved on the shoulders of the workers of the garment industry has no regard for their rights.
Garment workers and workers everywhere must draw conclusions from these bitter experiences. These union apparatuses, and their counterparts across the world, operate in the profit interests of “their” employers and governments, pitting workers against each other, country by country. As violent attacks mount on workers around the globe - from the US and Europe to India, Bangladesh and China - working people must build new organisations to unify their struggles across national lines. 

The Revolutionary Workers’ Party of Bangladesh has demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all workers’ organisers and leaders; and end to torture in the name of remand; withdrawal of all false cases against workers and leaders; an enquiry into the police firing of 12 December and the fire in the Chittagong EPZ; compensation of 10 lakh taka to families of workers who were killed, and compensation and medical treatment for injured; revision of grades and pay of workers according to their long-standing demands; Ensuring basic rights including TU rights to workers; and an end to all draconian laws and implementation of labour laws.