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Cover Story

From Grievance to Mayhem

What made the garment workers go on a rampage?

Mustafa Zaman and Shamim Ahsan

Last week's violent upsurge of the garment workers has ended as abruptly as it broke out. More than a week has gone by since then, but questions as to what made the otherwise submissive and compliant garment workers go on a rampage and whether the rioters were really garment workers, remain unresolved. While different labour organisations have interpreted the incident as an explosion of pent-up deprivation and grievances of the garment workers, BGMEA (Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association) leaders promptly found a neighbouring, competitor country's apparent hand in it.

Normalcy has returned and workers are back in business, but there is no scope of feeling relieved until the real reason, which is the long time exploitation of the workers by their employers, sees its end.

While workers and their representatives are blaming the melt down on the unresolved issues pertaining to the improvement of the workers' overall condition, the owners are prone to generate conspiracy theories.

This is not the first time the BGMEA or the garment owners have come up with a conspiracy theory. The recent fire incident in Chittagong's KTS garment that burnt some 50 to 60 people to death was also dubbed as an act of sabotage by the BGMEA leadership. Now, exactly on what solid evidence is this conspiracy theory based on?

BGMEA Acting President Salam Murshedi has at best a vague answer. There are people and NGOs who are here to serve a particular country's interest, Murshedi says. He however does not stop here, but enlarges the list of accused by alluding to the involvement of certain political elements within the country.

Shirin Akhter, a central leader of JSD and one who has been working with garment workers for a long time, summarily strikes off the conspiracy theory. "This has been a part of our culture. We are always ready to put the blame on others to cover up our own faults," Akhter says. Akhter has absolutely no doubt that what the garment workers did on those two days was a spontaneous expression of their long suppressed anger.

"Just think of the situation. In a large number of garment factories, if not most of them, there is no standard salary structure, no minimum wage, no security of job. Workers are made to work as if they were machines. After long hours of scheduled work they are often forced to work overtime and very often they are not justifiably paid for those extra hours. Even monthly salaries are not paid on time and sometimes they go on working for months without any salary because the owner's bill is stuck or something of that sort. Then they are often mistreated by the factory authority, especially female workers have to bear continuous verbal and sometimes even physical abuses. It's only natural that their anger will burst out one day, and that is exactly what happened there," Akhter argues.

And add to the list the build up of uneasiness and tension in every sphere of life these days, Akhter urges. Prices of essentials have skyrocketed and people are deeply afflicted with acute power and water crisis. All these factors have helped their long suppressed wrath to turn into an explosive expression, Akhter observes.

The BGMEA boss admits that workers in some garment factories are treated badly, specially pay-wise. He also admits that things were not in good shape in Universe garment factory from where the trouble erupted on May 23. There were troubles there in the past too. "We came to know that workers had some problems and they also conveyed it to the factory authority, but the authority mishandled the whole affair," Murshedi says.

Garment workers are paid in two ways; some are paid monthly salary while others are paid against their work. The sweater manufacturing factories in particular pay their workers on the basis of the pieces they sew. "But problems arise as some factory owners do not declare the rate in advance or pay less than the declared rate," Murshedi says.

However, while Murshedi is ready to accept that the Universe authority had their share of fault, he refuses to accept that Universe's troubles had virtually sparked off violence and rampage of such a large scale. "Look at the pattern and breadth of the violence, it was clearly pre-planned. How would you explain the vandalism inflicted by those 200 to 300 youths who wore jeans and sported helmets?" Murshedi asks.

At the absence of any platform through which the workers could vice their demands, they have no alternative but to take matters into their own hands

Regarding the garment workers' 11-point demand Murshedi claims that except for a few garment factories most of them already have been complying with them. The garment factories who export their products are bound to comply with certain rules and regulations, otherwise they cannot even open Letter of Credit (LC), forget export, Murshedi points out. It is the compliance issue for which hundreds of garment units have moved out from Dhaka. These factories pay Tk 2,000 even to a fresher and an A grade worker makes around Tk 5,000 to 6,000 a month including overtime pay, he claims.

When asked that if a garment factory has to comply with standard rules and regulations to sell their products how come some of them violate them, Murshedi points out that the garment factories which export their products are bound to comply with the set standards, not others. "There are some who do not export on their own and basically work on subcontract. It is these factories which mainly violate the standard rules and regulations," Murshedi explains.

Shirin Akhter, however, rules out Murshedi's claim that garment factories comply with standard rules and regulation, as they have to export their products. "It's like keeping your wife all made up during the day to show people how well kept she is and then beating her up at night," Akhter gives a comparison to expose the garment owners' double standard.

The recent flare up in the RMG sector has sent a chilling message to the Bangladeshis: All is not well in this industry. It is since the early 1980s that this labour-intensive industry has been shifted from the developed nations to the third world countries across the globe. This sector has literally been ferried to countries like Bangladesh, where labour is cheap.

Today, in Bangladesh, the RMG sector accounts for more than 70 percent of the total income from export. However, the huge labour force that is the backbone of this sector has been the subject of continuous exploitation and neglect. To this day the right to form unions remains an issue to which the owners are not yet ready to give the nod. In absence of a platform from where they would be able to voice their demands, the workers of the RMG sector have been mired in unmitigated crisis since the beginning. A recent newspaper report said that for the last 10 years the minimum wage for a garment worker has remained the same.

However, that there is a need for an immediate looking into the issues of worker's discontentment has hardly ever been acknowledged by the garment factory owners. BGMEA is yet to acknowledge the fact that many a disgruntled labourer of the sector have legitimate grounds to take to street agitation, and even resort to violence, to protest against the gross anomalies and continuous ill treatment. While the BGMEA is in denial, the leaders of the workers are unequivocal in pointing out the fact that this flare up has been the result of long-term abuse and exploitation.

When workers lock horn with the authority they do so in desperation

"What the government and the BGMEA are claiming is that the workers of the garment sector did not participate in the agitation and protest. Whereas it is a fact that they did. By concocting stories of outside intervention the authorities are trying to hide the fact that they have been at fault for quite some time," says Shamim Imam, General Secretary of the central committee, Jatiya Gonotantrik Sramik Federation.

He says that the garment sector has long been overshadowed by many an unresolved issue. "For a garment worker there is no provision of appointment letter, there is no service book. The fact that payment for overtime should be double compared to the payment for regular hours has never been considered; they have long been deprived of any weekly leave and yearly leave. In many a factory the salary of the last two or three months always remain due. And then there are other requirements -- the entrance passage must be six feet six inches high and 32 feet wide. The workers must be trained for fire emergency, but very few factories actually practise," says Shamim. Jatiya Gonotantrik Sramik Federation has conducted a survey on the garment factories in the Mirpur Area, where among 62 garment factories only two have been found to have trained their workforce as to what to do during a fire emergency.

Shamim has been working with the garment workers for the last ten years. He and others like him are of the opinion that the workers of the garment sector have long been subjected to exploitation and ill treatment. "The recent flare up is the result of the long-standing dissatisfaction," says Shahidul Islam Sabuj, Finance Secretary, of Garment Sramik Aoikyo Forum, whose president Morsheda Mishu were taken into police custody on May 23, the day all hell broke loose, and were released the day after. Shabnam Hafiz, president of Garment Sramik Mukti Andolon, feels that to find the cause behind the recent flare up one needs to look back. "Once the factories were shifted from Dhaka the workers were out of touch with the labour organisations, therefore, the treatment of the owners worsened," says Shabnam, who feels that after all these years there is no letting up of the incidents of workers being beaten up by the owners' henchmen. She cites a recent example where twelve workers who resigned from the workforce were recalled by the authorities only to be beaten up. "After mercilessly beating the workers unconscious the authority even called the police to hand them over as dacoits. The intervention of other workers somehow saved them," testifies Shabnam.

The violent outbursts that we witnessed on May 23 may recur if the problems plaguing the garment sector are not addressed on an urgent basis. Because what happened in and around Dhaka does not augur well for the country or for the future of this industry. Murshedi informs that BGMEA has an arbitration cell and it regularly summons owners who violate compliance regulations and even penalises them. "Every month we deal with a number of garment owners who have violated regulations and we have also notified all our members that from now on they will have to inform BGMEA if there are workers' grievances so that we can check things at the right time," Murshedi says.

Murshedi also discloses that there is a forum under the commerce ministry comprising representatives from the workers, BGMEA and the government to attend to problems either related to compliance or workers' demand. Akhter also believes that if this forum works properly, which is not the case now, things will improve to some extent. She also proposes representatives from the NGOs that have been working closely with the garment workers as well as those from the civil society to be included into the forum.

The worker-owner relationship is also very crucial, Akhter adds. Workers do not have any sense of belonging, thanks to the owners' mistreatment of them and indifference to their well being. The owners will have to change their attitude towards their workers and give them space to speak out their minds and the best way to do it is through trade unions.

Murshedi however has serious reservations about trade unions. "The history of trade unions in our country is not pleasing. More often than not trade unions have proved to be destructive for an organisation than constructive," he says. Shirin Akhter strongly objects. "The greatest of systems will also malfunction if badly conducted or if bad conductors run it. Healthy trade union is the best answer to raise and address the grievances and aspirations of the workers, but if there is none the workers have no means to convey their demands and bargain with the owner."

"Had the ILO (International Labour Organisation) convention been followed by both the owners and the government the situation would not have come to such a pass. We deplore the incidents of setting fire to the factories and the rampage that accompanied the protest, but it can never be denied that garment workers have long been deprived of their rights," says Shamim Imam. He denounces the havoc that a section of workers wreaked on the factories.

A section of angry garment workers are locked in a fight with the 'owners' henchmen.

"We are against any attempt to damage the institutions that feed the labourer. We deplore any violence aiming to harm the factories," asserts Shamim. He is in favour of a national-level initiative to resolve the present crisis. He sees no other alternative to "talks between the representative of the workers and the owners."

"Owners and government representatives should sit with the labour organisations to draw up long-term policies that would mitigate the grievances of the workers," proposes Shamim. He also points out that if the authorities fail to sit with all the relevant organisations, both registered and unregistered, then the attempt will be nothing but futile. "It has happened before that many unregistered labour organisations working in the RMG sector have been sidelined in favour of a number of organisations that are either seen as satellite extensions of the BGMEA or connected to NGOs. For the real arbitration to take place the authorities must sit with both registered and unregistered labour organisations. SCOP is an example of how an unregistered organisation played an important role at its initial stage as an arbiter," says Shamim. "The right to form a union has been acknowledged in the constitution of Bangladesh, but the RMG sector has been resisting all attempts of workers to organise themselves under any such umbrellas," laments Shamim.

Shabnam, who is involved with garment workers' rights since the mid 90s, feels that to steer clear out of the present crisis the authorities must withdraw all cases against agitating garment workers and comply with the eleven point demands of the workers. "The right to congregate and to form organisation is the constitutional right of the workers, this the owners will have to accept. What the government can do at present is that they can demarcate the minimum wage and enforce it through a proper body," says Shabnam who hastens to add that "if the owners have their association then why are the workers resisted from having one of their own."

The workers are back to their workplace, but until their grievances are duly addressed such violent upsurge may very well recur

BGMEA as an organisation of the owners has failed to play an essential role in forcing the industry owners to stick to ILO convention. The industry is rife with anomalies in fixing salaries and in setting overtime and work hours. It also utterly failed to maintain safety standard of the buildings that house the factories.

At the cost of the labourers' rightful share of the benefits, and sometimes at the cost of their lives, the RMG sector has flourished in Bangladesh.

Jamal Hossain, a knitting operator of World's Fashion Ltd at Gazipur, says that even after 25 years there is no sign of implementation of factory acts that ensure weekly holidays along with other yearly holidays.

"The death of a worker of FS Sweater is not the lone incident of killing, there have been others in Narayanganj. Even the deaths in fire have never been investigated properly and the relatives of the victims have never been fully compensated," says Jamal. As a worker he believes that it is through talks that problems should be resolved. "The director of the FS Sweater (which belongs to the SQ group) was informed on May 19 -- a day prior to the incident of agitation and killing of one of the workers -- that Morsheda Mishu, the president of the Garment Sramik Oikya Forum, was willing to negotiate on behalf of the workers. But the director was unwilling to sit with an outsider," recalls Jamal.

It's back to business at Savar EPZ but for how long?

This unwillingness to sit for talks where labour organisations were willing to mediate has led to grave consequences. On May 20, workers of FS Sweater went on a strike for the first half of the workday to press home their demand for pay hike as well as to set free two of their co-workers detained earlier by police and for withdrawal of alleged false cases against 80 others. The authority was noncompliant. As the workers went on a strike while remaining inside the factory, power as well as water supply were cut off at the behest of the authority. This had agitated the workers. They rushed out of the factory to find the main gate under lock and key. Most workers climbed the boundary wall, while some scaled it down, to pour out on the streets to organise a procession.

According to Jamal, a witness to the incident, police came charging in from behind while they were about to start a procession. They drove the agitating workers to the nearby village and it is from this village that the workers were joined by villagers who alongside the workers retaliated. "What followed is a chase and counter chase between the police and the workers. Sohag, a worker, along with two others were killed as the police opened fire after things had almost calmed down," says Jamal. The body of Shohag was first kept hidden in a warehouse and then handed over to the workers in the evening.

Members of 'Garments Commercial Officers Welfare Association Bangladesh' call for an amicable relationship between the garment factory owners and workers

The incidents on May 20 together with the incidents of May 23, when the workers of the Universe Garment along with workers of other garment factories went on a rampage, have sent a wake up call to those who have long been adverse to the idea of trade unionism in this sector. In the absence of a responsible trade union, the enraged workers have gone on a rampage. The destruction that followed amounted to crores of takas, but it is not monetary loss that one should mull over at this point. There are more pressing issues to be resolved. Such violent outburst of pent-up anger might get repeated if rightful demands of workers are not taken seriously.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006