Bangladeshi workers continue the protests and strikes that have been escalating in recent weeks.
Trouble in the garment industry has continued in Dhaka(see earlier report); yesterday (Tues) several thousand workers again fought cops in the Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ). Workers gathered at 8am outside MBM Garments factory to continue pressing their demands for improved pay and conditions. They also called for the release of a worker, Shakhawat, arrested yesterday, who was prominent in drawing up the eight-point list of demands presented to the MBM bosses. Other workers nearby also clashed with police at around the same time when they arrived to find themselves locked out of their workplace.
Fearing further unrest and possible attacks on their properties, 350 factories closed for the day, swelling numbers of workers on the streets. As workers from 100s of factories converged, electric poles were used as barricades. Workers then split into groups to further spread the agitation. The disturbances spread over a wide area; several factories were looted as security forces struggled to regain control. Police baton charged and used tear gas; workers responded with missiles, burning tyres and blockades of main highways. The city's garment industry, hub of the national economy, was again completely paralysed.
Two battalions of Bangladeshi Rifles troops were dispatched to the disturbances. This, along with the release of the arrested worker, Shakhawat, restored some calm; the day ended with a final mass demonstration outside the MBM factory to remind bosses of the workers' unfulfilled demands.
Demands of the demonstrators centered on pay rises, holidays, medical facilities and immediate payment of arrears. Rampant inflation has constantly reduced real incomes and the grudging concessions won from reluctant employers have not come close to taking inflation into account.
All of these events are occurring in complete disregard of the 'Emergency Power Rules' brought in by the military caretaker government when they took power a year ago. The emergency powers ban all public demonstrations. The apparent attitude of the police and government are expressed in this typical comment;
Anwar Hossain, deputy commissioner of police (Mirpur Zone), told The Daily Star, "We have been trying our best to keep the situation under control. We believe it is very much their [workers'] right to press home their demands. But they must do so peacefully and remember that unruliness is not to be put up with."
The security and political forces remain wary of the clear potential of worker unrest to destabilise and damage the country's main economic sector and to quickly spread distrurbances among the wider poor. Their choice to tolerate such disturbances perhaps expresses both fear of the consequences of greater repression; but also the recognition that long term economic interests will benefit from certain legal rights being granted to workers. The garment bosses are reluctant to concede such rights to workers and existing labour laws are regularly flouted. Initial capital investment is so low and wages so cheap that their profits so far remain high, even with competition from countries with higher productivity.
Elsewhere in Dhaka; students and teachers arrested during the unrest in August last year at Dhaka University campus may soon be released after continued demonstrations and agitations by students. Fifteen students and four teachers of DU were charged with breaching the Emergency Power Rules. Four teachers and one student remain in jail.