Community Women's Blog

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Garment-workers unrest and state coercion to impede democratic protests on the month of victory

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Rumana Hashem

An urgent update from Bangladesh on the latest development in labour movement and struggles for fair wage reached our inbox in the morning on Thursday the 22nd December, when I was catching up with last minute tasks to do before a go to winter vacation. A senior journalist and feminist from Bangladesh wrote:

 

Dear Comrades and Colleagues,

 For the past few days, garment workers from Ashulia Industrial Area, Dhaka , are engaged in all forms of protest to demand an increase in the minimum wage. 

 This morning around 11.30am Comrade Moshrefa Mishu of Garments Workers Unity forum was arrested from Topkhana Road in Dhaka. She was on her way to attend a press briefing on the current movement. Another labor leader Shoumitra Kumar Das was also arrested from Ashulia along with 5 other members of his organization, Garments Sromik Front. 

 What is worrying is that police has not confirmed either of the arrest. When asked about Mishu’s arrest, the Detective Branch police said, “she is neither arrested nor detained. She was invited to have a cup of tea.” So far, no words from the officials on Shoumitra and others arrests. 

 Meanwhile two police cases are filed against 219 workers, accusing of vandalism and assaulting factory officials. Two workers named in these cases are also arrested. http://www.newagebd.net/article/5292/121-workers-fired-200-sued  

 Please do what you think is needed for the immediate release of the arrested/detained workers and labor leaders.

in solidarity  [..]

 

Mosherfa Mishu is a grassroots feminist and a gifted organiser in the labour movement whose power of mobilisation has been proven for decades now. She was detained in late 2010 and was held for months in 2011 but she never gave in.  Mishu dedicated three decades for the workers’ rights and garments movement in Bangladesh. This time Mishu was kidnapped and held by police on an important day so as to isolate her from the workers who needed her most for their fight for fair wage.  Mishu was fortunately released afterwards as the purpose was already served and 26 key organisers were detained under special act – under the Industrial Law the government in Bangladesh could take any brutal action against any worker, without reasons, if she/he disobeys imposed rules in the industrial sector. Our friend from Bangladesh wrote on Thursday evening:

Around 5.30pm, the DB police has taken Comrade Mishu to her residence. With that ends the day long drama of inviting labor leaders to drink tea in police custody.

She is in good spirit, and thanked everyone for their concern and support. However, the following labor leaders are still in custody:

1)   Shoumitro Kumar Das, President of Garment Sramik Front Savar-Ashulia-Dhamrai Regional Committee. 

2) Rafiqul Islam, President, Garment and Industry Sramik Federation.

3) Al Kamran, President of Shwadhin Bangla Garment Sramik Federation Savar-Ashulia-Dhamrai Regional Committee.  

4) Shakil Khan, General Secretary of Shwadhin Bangla Garment Sramik Federation Savar-Ashulia-Dhamrai Regional Committee.

5) Shamim Khan, President of Bangladesh Trinomul Garment Sramik-Kormochari Federation.

6) Md Ibrahim, Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity Coordinator (Ashulia)

7) Md. Mizan, convener of Textile Workers Federation. 

What we see in this update is that the garment workers who are key to Bangladesh’s growing economy, and on whose labour and dedication the Bangladesh nation lives as an independent nation-state today are the ones that are being brutally subjugated and silenced. This silencing is happening in the month of victory in Bangladesh. Indeed, the month of victory seems brutal itself this year. Earlier this month, we have seen how brutally religious minorities and indigenous people have been prosecuted and oppressed by law enforcement squads in Bangladesh. Now it is the garment workers who are faced with the adversity of neo-liberal progress in a state that struggles to uphold democracy to say the least.

 

Garment workers are the driving force of Bangladesh’s national development and economic growth, they should be in the heart of the nation . Last week, on 12 December 2016, tens of thousands of garment workers in the capital city of Bangladesh, Dhaka, came out in a week-long strike. They were demanding a minimum monthly wage of 15,000 taka (£158) – a 300% increase on the current minimum wage. The strike is thought to have begun at the Windy Apparels factory, which had seen the gruesome death at work of an employee in October.

According to the Guardian (UK), the strike was provoked when 121 workers were sacked.  Their protests were declared illegal and 10 demonstrators were injured by rubber bullets. The strike then spread to other factories in the Ashulia area and by the 20th December, 59 factories were closed. Many were shut down by factory owners, who locked out the workers rather than face strike action.

The government has mobilised the notorious Rapid Action Battalion police force. Three officers from this same unit have just been sentenced to death after they were involved in politically motivated murders in 2014, in a trial which concluded 17 January this year. One of the three officers, Tarek Sayeed, is the son-in-law of a government minister, the BBC reports.

Fearing the garment workers’ strike would spread across the country, on this 21 December the government began to round up union leaders. This was despite the clearly spontaneous nature of the strike. In fact, the Clean Clothes Campaign, an NGO, reported that “none of the major trade union federations have endorsed the strike. At a number of press conferences, trade union leaders have instead urged workers to return to work.” Prosecutions swiftly followed and other union leaders went into hiding.

According to CWI report by Peter Mason, Around 5 million textile workers produce 80% of Bangladesh’s exports, and if successfully unionised they would have huge power. The continual attempts at unionisation made by the heroic textile workers constantly meet with police action and sackings. When the names of workers who wish to form a union are submitted to the government, as required by law, the government, with its many ties to the garment industry, simply turns the names over to the bosses, who then intimidate or sack them.

There are campaigns by the Clean Clothes Campaign and other NGOs which focuses on and appeals to the government, the employers and the many high street brands that profit hugely from the poverty pay and long hours of the workers. While these are important campaigns, “it is nevertheless the independent class organisation of the workers that is the essential first step”, correctly notes Peter Mason, a Socilaist Party Activist.

This militant section of workers face a brutal regime of exploitation. The Guardian reported that up to 3,500 workers were sacked in what was the first widespread action since the Rana Plaza collapse fatally buried more than 1,138 garment workers beneath piles of rubble and injured 2500 more. At that time, the government declared a day of mourning but incredibly, some bosses kept their factories open. Protesting workers burned two of them down, such was their rage. The government was forced to introduce the present minimum wage but it is totally inadequate.

Windy Apparels, where the December strike started, was supplying a number of well known high street outlets such as H&M, Tesco, Arcadia and Debenhams. Employees routinely work a 14 hour day. 8 hours are paid at the normal rate, two hours overtime, and the rest is unpaid labour. Despite a legal entitlement to sick leave, workers are routinely verbally abused, publicly humiliated, or docked pay.

The treatment of a female employee, Taslima Aktar, caused a scandal. Management repeatedly refused permission for sick leave to her when she was ill and she continued working. She then died at her sewing machine of cardiac failure following “severe respiratory distress”. The employers took her to hospital but later, her co-workers,  leaving the factory, found her body stowed away by management near the factory gates. “This is how little they value our lives … We know the same thing can happen any day, to any of us.” (The Grind, 15 December 2016.)

We urge everyone to show solidarity and raise voices against fascism of government and subjugation of garment workers in Bangladesh. We call upon all community women’s blog readers – please stand up and raise your voices to free all detained leaders of garment workers. Feel free to reproduce any part of this blog. Please write to the government asking to end arbitrary cases against garment workers and labour leaders in Bangladesh.

For further news read:

Mishu briefly detained

http://www.newagebd.net/article/5374/mishu-briefly-detained

Negotiation, not coercion to ease labor unrest

http://www.newagebd.net/article/5451/negotiation-not-coercion-to-ease-labour-unrest

Police pick up 26 people, 157 more workers terminated

http://www.newagebd.net/article/5410/police-pick-up-26-people-157-more-workers-terminated

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