The recent crackdown on garments workers in Ashulia, a hub of RMG factories on the outskirts of Dhaka city, seems very similar to the handling of student movements of the 80s.
The Ashulia streets and factories have been thronged by huge numbers of law enforcement members for several days. Around 75 people, including workers, labour leaders, and a journalist, were arrested for instigating the workers, and were placed on remand in several cases.
More than 1,600 workers were sacked from a number of garment factories for their alleged involvement in demonstrations over pay hike, and this number is expected to rise, according to police. But according to Bangladesh Garment and Workers Federation, the number of sacked workers is 3,500, and dozens of protest organisers have been forced into hiding.
Even when the protests seem to have calmed down, the sacking is still continuing, and the names of terminated workers were posted with their photographs at the gates of their respective factories.
And law enforcers have firmly declared that no one behind the unrest will be spared.
Now, what crimes did the workers commit that so many strict actions were taken instantly against them? They observed work abstention demanding a pay hike, as the accommodation cost, food cost, medical cost, ie living costs have been increasing over the years.
They don’t make a decent living with the current minimum wage of Tk5,000 a month.
Even if it is Tk10,000 a month for an operator, is it possible to manage the livelihood of a small family, when no shanty in any slum can be rented for less than Tk3,000? Let alone the cost of food, clothing, medical or recreational expenses, which are the basic needs of any human being to live.
So, the workers demanded a pay hike.
The crime was: Why did they abstain from work, instead of presenting the proposal to the owners’ association or the government through labour organisations, as was mentioned by the BGMEA president at a TV talk show?
Now, the question is: Have the owners ever paid heed to their workers’ sufferings if the workers had not demonstrated?
So, how would the workers, who are deprived of education, and live sub-standard lives, think that they should go with their proposal to the proper authorities and have a discussion over their demands and problems, while our top-level politicians never follow this very path to solve any issue?
Why are the law enforcement agencies so nonchalant about the owners’ crimes? Why are the authorities dilly-dallying in compensating the poor ill-fated families, who were dependent on the workers killed in the factories?
If, for the aforementioned reasons, the workers are treated like notorious criminals by the state, what about the killers who were responsible for the brutal deaths of hundreds of workers in garments and other factories?
In 2005, the Spectrum Garment factory collapse killed 64 workers and injured 80, as the additional floors, which had been built illegally, gave away.
Have the people responsible behind the killing of 64 people gotten any punishment?
In 2012, at least 112 workers were burned to death, and 200 received burn injuries in a fire inside the Tazreen Fashion factory, where the workers were prevented from escaping from the fire as the doors were locked.
What punishment did the owner and responsible people behind deaths get?
On April 24, 2013, more than 1,100 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza collapse. The commercial portion of the building was evacuated after cracks were discovered on April 23, but the factory workers were forced to work the next day, when the building collapsed.
Fearing job loss, the workers joined work in that risky building, and the most tragic event took place. What strict actions did the state or BGMEA or the law enforcement agencies take to punish the culprits?
Then, in October of the same year, a fire at Aswad Garments factory killed at least 10 people.
This year, at least 26 workers were killed in a fire at Tempaco Foils, which packages various items for several international brands, including Nestlé and British American Tobacco, according to media reports.
And recently, 26 female workers, most of whom were teenagers, were burned at the gas lighter manufacturing facility of Colour Max BD. At least five succumbed to burn injuries.
How can a gas lighter factory employ under-age workers? What actions have been taken against the owner who hired children to work in such a dangerous environment?
Why are the government, the BGMEA, and law enforcement agencies so nonchalant about the owners’ crimes?
Why are the authorities dilly-dallying in compensating the poor ill-fated families, who were dependent on the workers killed in the factories?
On the other hand, why are they so interested in protecting the owners of the factories?
Monswita Bulbuli is a Sub-Editor at the Dhaka Tribune.