As 2007 drew to a close, workers from garment factories in the Mirpur area of the capital city of Dhaka protested against the untimely death of Salma, one of their female co-workers.
Salma died on 30 December, reportedly due to excess hours insisted upon by bosses at the SQ garments factory where she worked.
Protesting workers formulated six demands, to punish the bosses and ensure their own safety in the factory.
Instead of improving conditions, the owners responded by refusing permission to attend Salma’s Janaja (final religious ritual before burial). They threatened workers who went with being turned out of their factory.
This callous response caused an outburst of long-felt anger, which came to the fore when, on the morning of 2 January, the workers found the factory locked up.
Workers from SQ were joined by thousands of others from neighbouring factories in occupying the main road connecting the north and central part of the city.
The protest continued till next day when the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Employers’ Association mediated an accord.
The negotiation resulted in partial fulfilment of the demands raised by workers.
The authorities agreed to compensate the dead worker’s family, and to stop work at the factory after midnight – previously the shifts continued into the early hours, sometimes until 6am.
Thousands of garment workers from Mirpur again occupied the main road last Saturday demanding payment of monthly wages within the first week of the following month, and for overtime to paid alongside wages.
The garment workers’ protest coincided with those of students and teachers at Dhaka and Rajshahi universities.
Four teachers and dozens of students from Dhaka university are still languishing in jail for taking part in the protest against the occupation of their university gymnasium by the army last August, as part of the state of emergency.
Protests forced the government to withdraw the army from the university, but it arrested and tortured teachers and students, and is still detaining them for organising the student revolt.
After negotiations, the government informed the university that it would release the detainees within two weeks. But that was almost a month ago, and now the students and lecturers are restarting their protests.
One of the main demands raised by the students is for the immediate withdrawal of the state of emergency.
The simultaneous protest of workers and students in the city, though not related, is a significant development.
The authoritarian attitude of the government is being challenged. This may compel it to end the emergency and declare a definite date for parliamentary elections.
Mushtuq Husain is the president of the Centre for Social Praxis, Bangladesh