Hundreds of garment workers in Bangladesh have been fighting pitched battles with the army, police and thugs hired by their bosses in an effort to win basic rights such as having their wages paid and not being assaulted by factory owners.
The current wave of struggles follow a rash of similar disputes over the last year in the Export Processing Zones (EPZ) that surround Bangladesh’s main cities – and which produce much of the world’s textiles.
The current flare up started last month at the Featherlite factory in the Savar district of Dhaka, the capital. Workers there demanded information about one of their colleagues, who they suspected had been beaten up by management and had since disappeared.
Bosses responded in such an aggressive way that the workers feared their initial suspicions were correct. They took to the streets in an angry demonstration – and were soon joined by scores of other garment workers from nearby factories.
Meanwhile in the Tejgaon industrial area in the heart of Dhaka garment workers at the Nasa group raised a series of demands for better pay and conditions, including the right to receive their monthly pay before the tenth day of the following month.
After a week of action in support of the demands, the bosses suddenly closed the factory on 22 September. Workers were infuriated. They demonstrated and toured nearby factories, winning huge support from others.
Many hundreds of protesters had gathered by the time armed hooligans tried to break up the demonstration. Both the army and the police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the workers in the violent clashes that followed.
There were many baton charges and hundreds of arrests and injuries – but the protesters would not be defeated. They were joined by many other workers from across the industrial centres of the city.
In a pitched battle, workers fought the police with a shower of bricks and stones. At one stage the police and army were forced to withdraw after they sustained heavy casualties.
The following day workers laid siege to the headquarters of the BGMEA – the garment bosses’ organisation. They occupied the road in front of the five star Hotel Sonargaon, where international conferences of business leaders often take place.
A day earlier the BGMEA had suggested that “foreign agents” were attempting to destabilise Bangladesh by causing the trouble in the factories.
But now the BGMEA was forced to concede most of the demands, signing an 11-point agreement with workers’ representatives.
The accumulated anger in Bangladeshi society is the result of many factors. These include a sharp rise in the price of essential commodities and food, a swelling of the ranks of the unemployed, the brutal repression of the workers’ and students’ movements, the maintenance of restrictive “emergency laws” and the trampling of our democratic rights.
These are the issues behind recent rebellions of university students in Dhaka, workers’ protests in Khulna in the south west of Bangladesh and Chittagong in the south east – and a host of other protests over recent months
There seems to be no way in which workers can communicate their demands to the bosses and the state – so protests have a habit of quickly going beyond the control of those who initiated them.
Bangladeshi society is a tinderbox. Any spark of protest can ignite a spontaneous eruption of anger from workers, students and even from the middle classes.
In many ways the bosses’ denial of the right to form recognised trade unions has made this situation even more combustible.
Mushtuq Hussain is the president of Shomaj Onushilon Kendro – the Centre for Social Praxis in Dhaka