On Wednesday (2nd Jan) this week several thousand garment workers from around 20 factories completely blocked a main highway from 8am to 5 pm in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh.
The action began when factory bosses locked out workers from SQ Sweaters Ltd in the Sheorapara area of the city; the lockout was in response to protests on the previous two nights when workers allegedly refused to work, seized management officials and held them hostage in the factory.
The events began last week when Salma, a female worker, became ill. Due to management disapproval and fear of being fired, she felt too scared to take time off work. On Sunday Dec 31 she attended work but her condition worsened; the line supervisor refused her permission to leave the night shift, under threat of being sacked. As her condition continued to decline, she was eventually taken home at around 3am. Salma later died at about 4:30am Monday. Workers were told they would be sacked if they attended the funeral service.
‘The factory management often forced us to work when we were ill. The management sometimes physically torture us for it,’ a worker alleged.
Since Monday there have been clashes reported inside and outside the factory and work stoppages, with management claiming that factory officials were held hostage by workers for a time on Monday. On Wednesday morning workers arrived to find themselves locked out. Thousands of workers gathered outside the factory and soon brought out workers from 20 surrounding workplaces. They then began the day-long roadblock, which police monitored but did not attempt to break up.
The workers said they would continue their strike until the factory’s owner came to them and fulfilled their demands, including showing them Salma’s post-mortem report, expelling the officials who were responsible for firing so many workers within a short period, re-instating the terminated workers, and restoring the earlier two working shifts from 7am to 3pm and 3pm to 11pm instead of the ongoing 8am to 8pm and 8pm to 8am.
They also demanded withdrawal of the cases filed against the workers with Mirpur and Kafrul thanas[district courts] in the last two months.
During the Wednesday demonstration a secretary of the garment bosses' BGMEA group arrived but was forced to leave, for his own safety, due to the anger of workers.
Worker unrest is no stranger to SQ Sweaters Ltd and its sister factories. The incident that sparked off the massive garment worker revolt in May 2006 occurred at the SQ-affiliated FS Sweaters Ltd factory; a worker was shot dead and 70 others, including cops and journalists, injured in major battles between workers, police and other security forces. The factory remained closed for a week after the clashes.
Strikes, roadblocks, occupations and vandalism of factories have continued in recent months in the RMG (Ready Made Garment) and jute mill sectors, repeatedly defying the ban on demonstrations imposed by the caretaker/military government since the declaration of a State of Emergency a year ago. The national minimum wage of $25 (£13) a month, even when enforced, is too little for the poor to survive adequately as inflation of basic necessities eats further into incomes. Many are also in dire straits since the recent flooding destroyed the homes and livelihood of millions, with aid being slow in reaching many areas.
Bangladesh seems no closer to restoring a functioning democratic process. At a conference for the legal profession last month, many speakers expressed doubts that the existing political parties were worthy of being reinstated in Parliament; "The caretaker government wants to hold election. But for whom and for what the election should be held?" ... "Justice Naimuddin said, "It is not possible to find any corruption-free person in Bangladesh since 1991 after restoration [of] democracy in the country." So, after a year of Emergency Rule and widespread anti-corruption purges, large sections of the Bangladeshi ruling class still have little trust in their own political specialists. As Pakistan, Thailand, Nepal and elsewhere also show, bourgeois democracy is experiencing a crisis in Asia.