Bangladesh is in the grip of a fresh round of protests by garment workers.
Mass demonstrations and confrontations with the police and factory bosses are taking place in the capital, Dhaka, the second largest city, Chittagong, and the northern Export Processing Zone in Nilphamari.
In July this year, following months of struggle, garment workers reluctantly agreed to an insignificant pay rise brokered by the government and the leaders of fake trade unions. The new wage rates would, they said, be introduced after four months.
But as the time came for the new agreement to be implemented many factory owners refused to comply, and, even where they did, they did so in a way that discriminated against experienced workers.
Sensing they could pull a trick, firms downgraded experienced staff before the increase was due. The result has been that many workers have seen only a nominal improvement in their pay – and recent sharp increases in food prices have offset even that limited gain – and bosses are still refusing to allow genuine trade unions to operate inside the factory.
Meanwhile, the garment sector has grown by a startling 38 percent this year.
The combination of these issues is contributing to rising anger and agony among the workers.
On Saturday 11 December garment workers in Savar, Rupganj and Gazipur (all of which neighbour Dhaka) began agitating for the proper implementation of the new wage structure.
They were joined the following day by workers in the port city of Chittagong. Anger grew as bosses at South Korean chain, YoungOne, withdrew an increased food price allowance, as well as refusing to pay the new wage rate.
As thousands of workers took to the streets and blocked roads, the newly established “industrial police” swung into action and fired on the protests. They killed 4 workers and injured at least 225 others.
The repression sparked volcanic eruption of protest not only in Chittagong, but also in Dhaka and the north-western Nilphamari Uttara Export Processing Zone.
Garment workers blocked the highway linking Dhaka and Hazrat Shah Jalal international airport. Their anger was so deep that several policemen had to swim across a canal beside the airport highway to save themselves from their wrath. A good number of police were injured, and many vehicles damaged in the clashes.
A ruling party MP was chased by the protesting workers in Chittagong.
But police are attempting to exact their revenge. They have since filed over 30,000 cases against workers and have arrested a leftist woman trade union leader. Several other union leaders are being hunted by the police.
In the wake of the protests, the government’s labour minister said he would review the “anomalies” in the new wage structure, but this was quickly contested by the factory owners’ association.
Meanwhile, the home minister branded agitating workers as “culprits and conspirators” and the prime minister warned workers not to associate with “destabilising agents”.
The grave situation inside the garment industry was illustrated on Tuesday 14 December when a fire broke out in Ha-Meem factory, and claimed 31 lives. The government and owners moved quickly to claim the disaster was the result of “sabotage”, rather than their scant disregard for health and safety regulations.
Ministers and factory owners would have liked to believe that they had quelled the workers’ anger with the deal they reached with fake union leaders in the summer. This latest outburst of protest shows that nothing could be further from the truth.
Mushtuq Husain is the president of the Centre for Social Praxis, Bangladesh