Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society (AMRF)
Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society (AMRF)
The garments sector witnessed recurring violence in Bangladesh. In recent times (June-July 2010), strings of incidence had taken place. Some incidents have paralyzed the whole Dhaka city. The workers took street, ran amok. Police violently swooped on them, water canon, rubber bullets and baton charges could not stop the workers from staging spontaneous demonstration. Generally in Bangladesh, the major reasons of sudden outburst, against the backdrop of accumulated anger and immeasurable plight of the workers, are directly linked to low wage, unpaid wages and overtime.
Low wage, irregular pay and sudden closure of the factory without any prior notification compel the workers to take the street. When Wage Board is haggling over the fixation of minimum wage and the owners volubly and vehemently opposes it.
Bangladesh has now around 4,500 garment factories which employ over 3 million workers. The minimum monthly wage of a garment worker is now 1,662 taka (about $24) a month. The garment industry accounts for about 40% of Bangladesh's total industrial workforce. A survey released last month by the Bangladesh Factory Inspection Department which showed that almost 15 % of employers did not pay their workers on time between January and May. Many other factory owners did not pay overtime, while several continued to pay less than the government's minimum wage.
The government marks time
The government is worried about global media, and how they are reporting. Government expresses concerns over irking of western companies; they are hardly worried about the causes of the workers. After the incidences, the government reacted sharply and assured the companies not to be worried.
Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, the Labor and Employment Minister appeared in media and informed that “negotiation for raising wages is making good progress and we expect a settlement before the end of this month [July 2010].” Hossain argued that any negotiation, particularly on sensitive issues, takes time. “Reviewing the wages of several million workers will take time...It can’t be done hurriedly, and a minimum wage can’t be foisted on the workers and the industry injudiciously.” The Bangladesh Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labor and Employment urged the government to declare “a time befitting minimum wage structure” by July 29. The committee also emphatically underscored that the government should take urgent measures to resolve all the other problems in the garments sector.
EU asks if there is exploitation
The European Union expressed concern over growing labor unrest in the readymade garment sector over wages. A three-member team led by the head of the EU Delegation to Bangladesh, Stefan Frowein, met Hossain to know about the alleged ‘labor exploitation’ in the export-oriented apparel industry. The European Union is concerned about labor unrest in the readymade garment sector. They wanted to know what move the government has initiated to increase the minimum wages for garment workers. The ambassadors also wanted to know whether the garment workers were being exploited.
The minister told the delegates that included ambassadors of the Netherlands and France in Dhaka that isolated incidents of violence might take place in such a large industry as the growing garment sector in which around 4 million workers were employed. ‘I told them that unrest at one or two readymade garment factories out of 3,500 is nothing unusual …It is nothing serious if 400-500 workers out of four million stage demonstrations in any situation. They [EU] have understood it,’ the labor minister was quoted.
It appears that government is trying to deny the movement as a broad spontaneous protest of workers.
The ongoing negotiation at the Minimum Wage Board for increasing the wages of garment factory workers has gained momentum after nine sittings in five months that were made fruitless by the reluctance of owners to raise wages by a reasonable extent. It is apparent from the statements of the government officials and Ministers that the owners are seemingly softening their position in the wake of fear that the unrest may spark off any time, if the demands of workers are undermined. As we came to know from various sources including media coverage that high ups of the government is exerting pressure on the owners to come down to a realistic and acceptable level of mark up of wage. Government sources are in apprehension that fixing even Tk. 2500(US$ 35) would not be reasonable amount for the workers to appease; angry protest will be triggered once again.
The flexibility that they are showing in terms of settling a threshold point of minimum wage is also as meager as it was before. The owners association is striving hard to keep the mark up of wage within Tk. 2500 per month.
In the beginning stage of wage negotiation the owners’ representative even proposed that the revised minimum wage should be around Tk 2,000 ($29) but it was rejected outright by the workers and other stakeholders. After that meeting, further escalation of protest by workers worried the government and the factory owners, who realized that an inadequate increase of wages might cause severe protests and jeopardize the whole industry. The owners’ lobby is now trying hard to ensure that the minimum wage will be no more than Tk 2,500 per month.
Garment factory workers demand Tk 5000 fixed as minimum monthly wage of an entry-level garment worker, pointing out that the existing minimum wage of Tk 1,662 or $25 that was fixed in 2006, can no longer sustain a person because of the constant rise in the cost of living. The minimum wage of an entry-level Chinese worker is $166, of a Vietnamese $90, of an Indian $130 and of a Cambodian $66.
The top brass of the government wish the minimum wage to be at least Tk 3,000 for an entry-level worker, and bills for overtime must be added to the take-home salary between Tk 4,000 and Tk 5000.
Even if the aforesaid amount (Tk 2,500) is paid to workers, this is not going to help climbing out of abject poverty ladder. The price hike of essentials has drastically plummeted down the real wage. It is widely recognized that the workers movement for a livable wage cannot be undermined as stray incidents; neither can be termed as a conspiracy.
The wage board for the garment sector, comprising representatives of workers, owners and an independent member, first sat on the 28th of January 2010. According to the law, it will have to come to a decision by the 28th of July. According to government prediction, in case of any delay in announcing revised minimum wage before the Eid Festival (September), a major workers’ unrest will take place.
Many incidences in 2010
The recent incidences triggered over wage is a common and overarching demand of the workers. This is not the problem of one or two factories as Minister for Labour described to European Commission delegation. Statement of top brass of the government and Ministers are full with paradox- on the one hand they are always skeptical of recognizing the fact that workers can independently mobilize, spontaneously rise and press their demand home. One quarter of government is blaming the apparel scrap traders. Sometimes, some of the high ups are also alluding to inhuman minimum salary as cause for unrest.
Seventy two incidents of labour unrest had taken place from January 1 to June 30, 2010. The incidents left at least 988 workers injured in police actions while 45 workers were arrested and more than 10,000 were sued and at least 78 workers were sacked.
A series of incidents had also taken place in and outskirts of Dhaka until mid- July leaving hundreds of workers injured.
A total of 41 incidents occurred in connection with the demand for payment of their dues. In 13 cases, the workers took to streets to protest at the killing or torture on their colleagues. Among others, declaration of lay-off or closure, and termination and curtailment of leave or holiday were the causes of demonstrations and unrest. Of the incidents, 13 occurred in January, three in February, seven in March, twenty-two in April, eleven in May and sixteen occurred in June.
The apparel sector experienced a severe labor unrest in the beginning of this year. In the first week of January, thousands of workers in Mirpur and Pallibi areas of Dhaka took to streets to protest at the killing of a worker inside a factory.
Workers from most of the factories around joined them in the demonstration. Eight incidents of unrest occurred in Mirpur zone in Dhaka city during the period while 16 incidents took place in Savar-Ashulia area including the Dhaka Export Processing Zone, outskirts of Dhaka, 19 incidents in Gazipur-Kaliakoir area, 12 in Narayanganj-Fatullah area, three in Rampura-Banani area, six in Chittagong and four others occurred in Comilla, Narsingdi, Demra and Tejgaon areas.
Factories are being closed
Authorities suddenly shut down the factory without notifying workers. As the closure was unannounced and uninformed workers who came to attend work in fine morning found a notice hanging in the factory gate and factory gate was closed. Factory was closed without paying monthly wage of the workers. The notice saying that factories would remain closed until further notice. Workers who came to join the factory gathered in the street.
Police intervened and attempted to disperse the workers using excessive force. Violent attempt of police to disperse the workers enraged the workers. The workers of other factories of this sprawling garment belt, stretching a radius of 10-12 sq.km, where hundreds of factories are located, took to street. Clash spread in the whole area.
The workers locked in clashes with police was intimidated and brutalized by the law enforcers. The police fired teargas shells and used water cannon to disperse the demonstrators. The factories' owners complained of "panic and anarchy" and the government sent hundreds of riot police. The cops fired rubber bullets and tear gas. The workers hit back by hurling rocks and torching cars. The workers of other factories rallied behind the demonstrators. The intervention of police was so brutal and heinous. Thousands of workers took the street and demonstration continued for days. Owners have hired their own gangs to protect their production units.
Sudden stoppage of production of hundreds of garment factories by the authorities for the days and police action on apparel workers demonstrating for wage increase also added new dimension to the whole problem. However, the main slogan chanted by the workers was on fixing TK 5,000 (US$70) as minimum wage.
- Rising food and essentials prices are making the garment workers plight worse. The low wages have a disastrous effect on workers' livelihoods.The workers especially women are struggling to feed themselves and their kids, and their anger is boiling over.
- Companies have broken their promises and pledges. Companies pay hardly any attention to miseries of the workers. In the absence of any stewardship of movement, a network has developed among the workers which is expanding and growing.
- Government promised that workers wages would be substantially increased, but the statements and arguments on fixation of wage clearly demonstrate that the government is not going to keep its promise.
- Non-existence of union and organization left no option for the workers but to take streets in protest of torture, low wage and non-implementation of labor laws.
- All the Memorandum of Understanding ( MOU) in a series of tripartite negotiations, which took place over the last couple of years, were not respected by the Bangla Desh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Government;
- The role of the labour department of government is fuzzy and dubious. Not a single Workers Participation Committees are allowed to function properly in the factory.