From Tragedy to Nightmare
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?
Zaman and Shamim Ahsan
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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
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,
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
The workers will be entitled to have two bonuses during
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
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