Wednesday, July 1, 2009
50,000 workers on the streets and 50 factories burning in Bangladesh
The mass unrest in the garment industry continued on Monday (29 June) for a third day...
Savar, central Bangladesh (a center of textiles and agriculture); for several days last week 1800 workers at a sweater factory in Ashulia had been striking in demand of a pay increase and settlement of outstanding wages. Management finally agreed to the demands on Thursday. But on returning to work on Saturday (27 June) three workers who had taken leading roles in the agitation and negotiations were told they were sacked "on charges of leading the demonstrations". On learning this the workforce immediately left the factory to demonstrate and to demand the reinstatement of their three fellow workers. This led to fierce arguments and then scuffles with the factory bosses, two of whom were reported to be beaten up.
Soon after police and Ansars (a civilian volunteer defence group, an auxiliary to the professional security forces) arrived; police began firing tear gas shells to try to disperse the demonstration, which now blocked a main highway - workers responded with hails of stones and bricks. Then the Ansars opened fire with live rounds of bullets into the crowd. Two workers were shot - one, Al-Amin, 26, died later at 12.30pm in hospital.
On the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital city, in the industrial zone; workers' rioting and demonstrations yesterday escalated to new heights. As thousands of workers gathered in the morning, at 10am a group set off towards the nearby Dhaka Export Processing Zone where many garment factories are located. Police blocked their way and fierce fighting began - in the pitched battle police teargas and rubber bullets left 100 workers injured.
Other workers soon joined the protesters and informed them that work was continuing as normal at the Hamim Group factory complex. Twenty thousand workers began to march towards the complex. As the numbers of protesters in the area swelled to 50,000 the security forces were simply overwhelmed; the Dhaka District Superintendent of Police said; "An additional 400 policemen stood guard in front of the major factories. We tried our best to disperse the crowd, but they were too many and too fierce.”
There are reports that some workers at the Hamim complex tried to defend the factory and clashed with the demonstrators as they approached (presumably reluctant to sacrifice their workplace to the greater cause - though whether these workers were garment workers or factory security and/or management personnel is unknown). The approaching protesters were said to be angry that these workers had failed to join the weekend protests over the killing of two garment workers shot by cops - and that the factory owners had, unlike other bosses, continued operating since the shootings.
The workers split into smaller groups and stormed the complex at around 10.15am. They sprinkled the buildings with petrol; a sweater factory, three garment factories, two washing factories, two fabric storehouses ... over 8,000 machines, a huge quantity of readymade garments, fabrics, three buses, two pickup vans, two microbuses and one motorbike were all reduced to ashes.
The crowd was thinking strategically. Once the buildings were ablaze some workers returned to the highway and blockaded the road; consequently, the fire services were unable to reach the blaze for several hours until 3.30pm - by which time the buildings were burnt to the ground.
Meanwhile, groups drawn from some of the other 50,000 workers and participants (undoubtably other sympathetic non-garment workers and slum dwellers would have been drawn in) roamed the area and attacked and vandalised another 50 factories and 20 vehicles. Thick black smoke could be seen across the city.
Though in public statements the garment bosses have been attempting to maintain international confidence by playing up the continued economic health of the industry it seems that some companies are beginning to feel the pinch of the economic crisis. One report suggests that
The current global meltdown had a background part to play in the whole thing as scores of factories turned sick due to reduced orders. Low and delayed wage payments following the recession also helped trigger the unrest... Many factory owners had truncated their workforce to be more competitive against their international competitors, industry insiders said. (Daily Star - 30 June 09)
The factory in Ashulia's S. Suhi Industrial Park, where the dispute that sparked this unrest began(1), laid off most of its workers and sold to a new owner in February due to a decline in orders from international buyers. Laid off workers had apparently been regularly agitating for re-employment at the unused factory at a higher wage rate;
The closure of the units of S Suhi Industrial Park Ltd was mainly responsible for the latest labour unrest in garment factories in Ashulia and Savar areas, a number of garment workers claimed.
Pretty Group in March started production only with the sweater-manufacturing unit and kept the five other units of the former S Suhi Industrial Park closed. Around 1,000 out-of-work workers of the five units were mounting pressure on the new management to restart those units soon, said garment workers.
The workers of the closed units along with other ill-paid workers of some nearby factories, which are not doing so well, started a movement to reopen the units and raise salary of workers, they said.
Failing to get their jobs back, they started to unite and threaten to halt production in other factories unless the former S Suhi units are reopened, a worker of Ha-Meem Group said requesting anonymity.(Daily Star - 30 June 09)
But the new owners denied this, none too convincingly;
Manjur Rahman, manager and company secretary of Pretty Group, claimed that this labour unrest had neither anything to do with his factory nor was it triggered from his factory.
In fact, the truth is probably a little more subtle - the Pretty Group dispute was the spark that set off an explosion waiting to happen. The global economic crisis increases already pressured working conditions, decline in real wages/purchasing power due to inflation and actual or threatened unemployment; in Bangladesh a decline in income is a short step away from hunger and starvation; many garment workers are already permanently malnourished (as described here; http://libcom.org/news/bangladesh-militarized-factory-visions-devouring-demons-capital-15092008).
Where this workers' movement goes from here is anybody's guess. But the ruling class is worried it may spread to the south-eastern port city of Chittagong, another smaller center of the garment industry, with 700 factories.
Security has been beefed up with special surveillance over the Chittagong city’s apparel sectors as tension brewed here against the backdrop of violence in the garment factories in Dhaka, police officials and garments association leaders said on Monday.
Nothing is resolved. Watch this space...
1) See earlier articles here;