Tejgaon, Dhaka; yesterday morning (Saturday) new clashes broke out in the city's industrial zone. Up to 25,000 garment workers came out on wildcat strike and fought both police and management-hired thugs. Over 50 people, including cops, were injured - some seriously.
The trouble began on Saturday morning at the Nasa Group factory. Supposedly one of the more 'responsible' employers - Nasa supply Primark in the UK and Wal-Mart in the USA amongst others - Nasa workers had been on strike for 2 days demanding payent of wage arrears, bonuses and extra holiday allowances. Whilst demonstrating at the factory gates - in defiance of the government's ban on all protests - workers learned that management had now decided to indefinitely lock them out of the factory. There are conflicting reports of what happened next; earlier reports state that 3,000 workers responded to the lockout by marching to the nearby Sepal Group factory to picket out workers there. The Sepal workers were reported to be unwilling to come out in support of the Nasa workers, so fighting broke out between workers from the two factories. But a later report claims that the fighting was actually between the Nasa strikers and thugs hired by factory bosses. It also states that the Sepal workers initially refused, but later did join the Nasa strikers - as did many other factories, bringing up to 25,000 workers on the streets.
As the hired thugs joined forces with hundreds of cops and army personnel against the workers, a large area became a battlefield. 20 factories were damaged, buses were burned and roads blocked. By early afternoon, the intense fighting had died down.
The background to the present unrest is the still unresolved enforcement of the minimum wage and conditions agreement of June 2006. Though the ready-made-garment (RMG) employers federation the BGMEA claim 97% adherence to the agreement, unions say the real figure is that only 20% of 4,000 RMG factories have implemented the agreement. The government has said it will take action against any employer not complying by September 30th; yet the government has never enforced similar threats in the past, having already deferred the deadline twice. Unpaid wages and brutal work conditions remain commonplace - strikers were quoted yesterday as saying that;
the owner used to force them to work under inhuman conditions. They alleged that factory officials would forfeit a significant part of the salary and overtime bill if anyone was found taking rest even for a minute during work hours.
One of them said, “They beat us up even for a minor mistake. (Daily Star, 23/9/07)
Even the cops blame the employers for the unrest;
We asked them to resolve the issue to avoid untoward incidents. But they said they were not bound to have talks with the workers,” said a top police official seeking anonymity.
He added that when they urged the authorities to pay the workers their arrears before shutting down the factory, the factory executives said they would disburse the outstanding salaries sometime in future and a notice would be issued to that effect.
Police sources said the incident took place due to arrogance on the owner's side. (Daily Star)
Meanwhile the bosses once again resort to peddling a familiar myth; playing partly on regional prejudices and suspicions against neighbouring India, they claim workers have no valid cause for complaint and that the trouble is stirred up by outsiders; the president of BGMEA laughably "alleged that this was not an act of general workers ... It may be a conspiracy of local and international collaborators."
* * *
The renewed unrest is a setback for the caretaker government. It's western backers will be unimpressed with its inability to contain the class struggle, which has in recent weeks found a new burst of energy in the RMG sector. Nor will western buyers be impressed by more labour unrest; some were already put off by last year's major troubles in the garment factories. Garments are Bangladesh's biggest export earners with sales abroad earning more than nine billion dollars last year, or three-quarters of the country's total export earnings.
On taking power in January the caretaker government presented itself as determined to clean up the rampant corruption throughout the political and commercial life of the country. The army has pursued relentless anti-corruption purges against leading politicians and businessmen (alongside World Bank/IMF-directed privatisations). But now, inevitably, evidence begins to appear that the present regime is taking its own advantages from its ruling position.
We have already started seeing that, team of people backed by military, who took over power on January 11th with the promise of cleansing the country from the grips of corrupts and culprits, are also unfortunately getting into numerous questioned activities, either directly or through their children, which shall surely be written in the black book of corruption and irregularity in this country.
Despite the fact that the interim government is encouraging combating corruption and the Anti Corruption Commission has already called for statement of properties from various politicians and officials. The Chairman of ACC, former army chief Hassan Mashshud Chowdhury made a tremendous example by submitting his property statement right on the day of taking over the responsibility of the chairman of ACC. ... But, ... the advisors in the interim government are not interested in submitting their wealth statements. ....
It was reported in Weekly Blitz last issue that the son of the Information Advisor has applied for the broadcast license of a television channel. He [the son] has also started showing interest in gradually capturing the business of supplying programs to the state owned Bangladesh Television, which has been one of the questioned activities of the past government. (Editorial, Blitz 19/9/07)
The continuing high level of militancy among RMG workers appears to have made government and employers so far reluctant to push for any decisive confrontation with the predominantly female (90%) workforce. Yet they have felt confident enough to largely continue to refuse to conform to last June's agreement on wages and conditions. Workers and their families suffer rampant inflation of basic goods and a decline in real wages - wages that are already less than adequate to guarantee survival. As conditions for the Bangladeshi poor continue to deteriorate, circumstances lead one to think that - sooner or later - something has got to give. If one accepts that things cannot go on long as they are, there seem limited options, given the forces involved. Insurrection, bloody repression, who knows?