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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 130 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 14 , 2003

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From Tragedy to Nightmare

All hell broke loose in the early hours of November 3 in BSCIC City as police in riot gear swooped on the agitating garment workers. A couple of hundred male and female workers of Pantex garments had been laying siege for the last four days and nights. High-handedness on the part of the factory owner and the atrocious actions of the local administration led to the worst deadlock ever to be experienced in this industry. The stalemate soon turned into mayhem when thousands of workers joined in to fight their beleaguered brethren. At one stage the police opened fire. One killed and more than a hundred injured. Why did the situation go so out of hand?

Mustafa Zaman and Shamim Ahsan

At around 11 p.m. Mahbubur Rahman Ismail got two back-to-back calls from Magistrate Monjurul Mannan and Magistrate Sayed Belal Hossain. Ismail was to arbitrate on behalf of the garment workers of Pantex Dresses Ltd in the BSCIC City near Narayanganj. The authority summoned him at that ungodly hour under the pretext, as Ismail puts it, “of reaching an agreement to end the deadlock that started four days earlier”. The workers had laid siege at the factory for the last four days and on the night of the calls were sitting at the gate of the factory determined to block an urgent shipment. A consignment worth one lakh dollar was at stake.

For a factory that has a vast contingent of young women working for them, having a trilateral meeting at 11 pm was something of an anomaly. There was another discrepancy: Three magistrates, ASP Zillur and the OC (Officer in Charge) of Fotulla police station with a platoon of police awaited the arbiter Ismail, who upon arrival was taken to another garment factory nearby to negotiate.

Ismail was called several times by Monjurul Mannan. Ismail's contention is that he was persuaded on the ground that the Pantax authority was ready to accept the demands of their labourers. The 9 to 5 work hours and adequate water supply during prayers figured prominently in their demands. “I was assured over phone by the concerned magistrate that the authority was willing to concede and I was asked to go there to announce the decision to them,” Says Ismail. Yet he was not sure whether he should go or not, until he got another call from the Magistrate Syed Belal Hossain. He also confirms that he got yet another call from ASI Faruk of Fotulla Thana requesting his presence to solve the issue.

It took Ismail a little more than half an hour to get to the spot by a rickshaw after refusing a car the authority had offered. There were lots of workers both male and female blocking the main gate. After talking to the workers, Ismail found out that the directors of Pantax were waiting for him in a nearby eight-storied building.

According to Ismail, the Pantex authorities cajoled him to help them solve the problem of the immediate shipment on the grounds of their sham acceptance of the demands of the workers.

What ensued after the phone calls was not at all in conformity with what the magistrate and the ASI Omar Faruq said to Ismail. He was taken to a separate place “to nullify the movement that took momentum for the last few days to secure the rights of the workers”.

“The negotiation went on till 3am, and it all boiled down to one thing, I was asked to inform the workers that the siege must be lifted. And their demand would be looked after later,” Ismail says. The authority failed to sway Ismail and events of shooting, killing, arson, picketing and baton charge followed during the early hours of the next day, taking a calamitous turn when the garment workers went on a rampage damaging vehicles, factories and offices.

The arrest of Ismail, which the authority and an Ittefaq report described as 'escorting him to the Fotulla thana”,
was not the sole incident that scrambled up an already volatile situation. When at the wee hours of the night, the police charged at the agitated workers laying seige at the Pantax premises, and opened fire fatally wounding Amjad Hossain Kamal, a Pantax worker, the tables were turned. It was no longer a fight between the owner and the employees, it became a virtual battle between the workers and the police.

Runa, an eighteen year old garment worker of the Pantax Dresses LTD. told the daily Prothom Alo, "After Mahbubur Rahman Ismail was taken away, a huge contingent of the police zeroed in on the workers, mercilessly charging them with batons, boots and rifle butts.” She also said that it turned into a battleground when the workers working night shift in the surrounding garment factories heard the screams and came out to join their brethren. “Workers came in the hundreds to fight the police and they started to pelt brickbats and took up the bamboo sticks lying around the construction sites to fight,” said Runa, an eyewitness. She confirms the presence of the “henchmen” who fought side by side with the police.

Most newspaper reports said that the fight took place at around five a.m. At this time Ismail was sitting at the Fotulla police station listening to the sounds registered in the wireless of an ASI. It was not until 8 a.m. that he was put under the lockup.

How did a matter that everyone now thinks could have been resolved within the precinct of the concerned factory become so catastrophic?

It is a calamity that has affected every sphere of the city that last saw an incident like this during the movement against the autocracy of Ershad. The angry mob even damaged the Narayanganj Press Club the next morning, thinking that it too was a part of the Bangladesh Knit Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) office. Their office at the second floor is the one that the club rented out to them,” informs Asif Hossain, the Narayanganj correspondent of the daily Prothom Alo.

Hossain adds that BKMEA being a trade body as such did not have much to do in this occasion. “There was a meeting at 7p.m. on October 3 at the Narayanganj Rifle's Club where BKMEA and the authority of the concerned factory met. The decision was to wait until next morning to resolve the issue of the siege,” says Hossain. “A contingent of police went to the spot as early as 9 o' clock that night,' he adds.

The heavy involvement of the administration with an issue that concerns the garment owners and their employees is a dark patch that needs illumination. But, Asif Hossain confirms that it was an unprecedented measure, there were problems at the BSCIC City before and in most occasions the workers submitted petitions to the District Commissioner of Narayanganj. The BKMEA too was instrumental in trying to resolve them. The District Commissioner (DC) was the person the workers always turned to. Ismail testifies that a few days before when the water supply at the rooftop mosque of the Pantex factory was shut down, the workers submitted a petition asking the DC to intervene.

There was a lot of pent-up emotion waiting to burst, as no one was there to mediate on behalf of workers. “It is a sorry situation that most of these workers are like floating labourers, they have no union to lobby for their rights,” says Raju Ahmed who deals in garment accessories. “The time of shipment is a decisive moment both for the factory owners and the workers. As they are often hired for a particular consignment for a certain period of time, workers often fear that their demand would not be met after the shipment is over,” he adds.

A journalist who chooses to remain anonymous believes, “It is the hard-line taken by the administration that mucked up the situation. Whoever heard of a trilateral meeting at mid-night where three magistrates were present!” He contends that the police took order from the magistrates to open fire without prior warning. “The whole situation was dealt in a heavy-handed manner, and the Home Minister played a role here as we have come to know that he is a relation of the owner of Pantax Dresses Ltd.,” he adds.

The mayhem that sparked off in the BSCIC City after Ismail's arrest and the brutal police charge on the workers that lead to the tragedy, soon spilled over. It took a nasty turn, when at 7 in the morning, the workers of the day shift began to flock to the factories and found their work places locked up with BDR battalions standing guard.

The rumour that police had killed more than five people ignited the anger of the workers. Although a local resident says that the gondogol (anarchy) mostly took place in and around BSCIC City, life in Narayanganj came to a halt on October 3 and 4.

With the Pantex authority absconding, and Ismail at the centre of the chaos, the events that started on October 3 and continued till the next couple of days, remain shrouded in mystery. The owner of Pantex, Majid Khan, could not be found to tell his side of the story.

Ismail, an advocate by profession and a district-level leader of Bangladesher Shamajtantrik Dal, who helped many workers in their time of need, providing them with legal advice from time to time, has become a major irritant for the owners of garment factories. Though there are owners who are equally holding the Pantex authority responsible for the mishap, they are a minority.

Ismail reveals that at one point he was forced by the magistrates to face the workers of Pantex and tell them to withdraw their sit-in programme. But the workers' reply was that they had been protesting for four days and no one from the authority had shown up to tell them a single mitigating word. Ismail contends, “After three O' clock at night I wanted to leave the scene and go home. But they did not let me.”

It was at around five in the morning that Ismail was bussed to the Fotulla Police station. “I asked the officer whether I was being arrested or not, the ASI (Assistant Sub-Inspector) refused to answer then,” Ismail testifies. Ismail. “It was at around five thirty that I heard the noises of gun-fire and skirmishing over the wireless of the ASI. It was around 8 a.m. that Ismail was put in the lockup. Soon after Ismail was liberated from the lockup r by an angry mob of garment workers. They broke in and whisked him out of the police station.

A journalist who prefers anonymity observes, “The arrival of the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) two hours after the first incident that ignited the mayhem, is the telling sign that they were prepared for any kind of untoward incident at the Pantex premises.” But he admits that without the BDR taking charge, things could have got worse.

If there is a third party it is represented by Ismail, as he is not a worker himself but is working to organise the workers to stand for their rights. It is common knowledge that the Knit Garment sector is the healthiest body part of the garment industry as a whole. The workers here are paid according to what they produce. Yet, often there is a middleman who provides garment factories with their required experts. Journalist Asif Hossain believes, “At BISCIC most of the owners are benevolent, although of course there are exceptions.” About Ismail, Asif says that as a politician and an advocate he seems like a man who practices what he preaches.

Ismail is a district level leader of Bangladesher Shomajtantric Dal. According to his words he is carrying out a pro-workers agenda. “Ismail has been trying to organise the workers for the last couple of months. He has given them legal help before, stood by them during their troubles,” says Asif shedding light on this man who is receiving a lot of flak from the factory owners as well as the authorities.

Excitement mounted in the office of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) in central Narayanganj since noon on November 6. Some 50 to 60 garment owners have assembled to attend a tripartite meeting among the owners, workers and administration that is due shortly. A general feeling of anger was evident among the owners when they talked about the incidents.

“Nothing has happened in the last six years since BSCIC industrial enclave was set up. And suddenly hell breaks loose without any reason,” Mintu, owner of Western Knitwear, argues. Opinions are however divided when it comes to identifying the criminals.

But claims like 'nothing has happened' or 'all on a sudden' are not absolutely true. In fact, unrest had been brewing up since the beginning of Ramadan among Pentax workers that reached a bursting point on that fatal night. Along with an eight-hour workday, payment of arrears and assurance of Eid bonus were among the main demands. Re-scheduling of working hours during Ramadan, unhygienic work environment, intentional stoppage of water supply, creating problems for performing wazu and keeping the mosque closed were also among the pressing issues. Owners however strongly deny these allegations. “Come to my garments factory and I will show you the monthly salary sheet,” another owner says, “the allegation regarding unhygienic environment is baseless as the garments factory in question is of ISO standards”, Monjurul Hoq, the President of BKMEA, points out. Neither are they ready to accept the complaints concerning wazu and sealing off of the mosque. “since wazu or prayers are delicate issues a certain section of workers have fabricated to provoke others,” snaps another.

Md Zoynal Abedin, another owner, however doesn't reject the allegation outright. “Shortage in water supply is quite possible and it happens even in the most posh areas in Dhaka. Sometimes the pump goes out of order,” Zoynal concedes. But, he doesn't subscribe the idea that these are issues to create troubles. Mintu puts forward similar arguments regarding non-payment of salary on time. “Sometimes the buyers make delays in clearing our payments. Sometimes we have to sit idle as we don't have any work,” he maintained. How ever, he insists that such incidents of late payment of salaries are quite rare in BSCIC factories.

Their main point though is that while there may be occasional problems here and there, in general, conditions are much better in the garments factories in BSCIC industrial area than other places. “But these temporary problems in one or two factories have never created any major problems in the last six years and we along with the labourers have always managed to solve them,” Helaluddin says. That is what makes the owners smell foul play and they all allude to 'an invisible hand' from outside exploiting the labourers to realise their own design. A surprisingly large number of garments businessmen including the President of BKMEA, Monjurul Hoq, strongly believe that there are foreign powers behind this trouble. Hoq however chooses to be careful when asked to identify what they mean by foreign hands. “It is those who want to destroy our garments industry,” is his vague answer. Others however don't mind to open their hearts. “It can be our foreign competitors in exporting ready-made garments who are hatching conspiracies to create trouble,” Emdad Hossain says.

Many more are quick to support him. “These people are agents,” another says referring to Ismail. “We have never seen him before and he was never involved with garments workers,” he adds. Sabbir Ahmed, another owner, reveals that those who have instigated the workers in different factories have been employed very recently and it is now clear that they entered with an ulterior motive to create chaos and disrupt production.
Mahbubur Rahman Ismail who has been bargaining on behalf of the workers, is naturally an easy target of owners' wrath. While owners accuse him for this trouble they don't think he has the influence or clout to do it alone. While some believe he is an agent working for foreign powers, some are of the opinion that he is used by a certain political party who wants to discredit the government in every possible way.

Garment owners also point out the heavy loss they have incurred by the rampage carried out by the workers on that night. Many of the factories were attacked, cloth, threads and valuables were looted, and machinery was damaged. But what is hurting them most is the closure since the trouble. "We won't be able to meet our deadlines for shipment that will cost us dearly. Again we have been forced to cancel or refuse many of the orders in the last few days. We have lost both in terms of money and confidence, that our buyers have placed on us,” Helaluddin, another owner, says.

Things however calmed down as the association finally bowed to the legitimate demands of the agitating workers. The meeting held between the knitwear manufacturers and the workers, in presence of the district administration, reached the following resolutions on November 6:

An eight hour workday from 9 am to 5 pm will be enforced. When it exceeds the eight hours limit the workers will get at the rate of twice their regular salary.
The workers will be entitled to have two bonuses during two Eids.

Cases against the workers and Advocate Mahbubur Rahman Ismail, will be withdrawn.

No workers should be harassed for participating in the movement.

Slain worker Amzad Hossain's family will receive Tk 1,00,000 while the injured labourers will get the cost of treatment.

Workers, who are now being paid on 'production basis', can opt for monthly salary.

A technical committee has been formed to settle any dispute between owners and workers in future.

The resolutions if sincerely adopted will usher in the possibility of a real truce between two groups that have historically maintained a precarious relationship. But the October 3 tragedy will not be forgotten too soon by the workers who are invariably the target of exploitation and the scapegoats of political intrigue.


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