Bangladesh police crack down on unions after wage unrest

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urges garment workers to end deadly minimum wage protests as police launch crackdown against union leaders

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 9:32pm

Bangladesh’s prime minister urged garment workers on Wednesday to end deadly protests over a new minimum wage as police launched a crackdown against union leaders leading the campaign.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on workers to return to their factories, where they stitch clothes for Western retailers such as Walmart and H&M, branding the protests over the new US$68 minimum monthly wage unjustified.

“I would like to tell the apparel sector workers to go to work,” Hasina said in comments aired by local television channels.

She warned that workers would be “the worst-losers” if factories continued to stay closed as a result of the protests and Western retailers diverted orders to other countries as a result.

Police have arrested five leaders over their roles in the street protests in key industrial districts outside the capital which started last week and have seen clashes with police that have left two people dead.

“They were (all) arrested on Tuesday for inciting violence,” Mostafizur Rahman, deputy police chief of Gazipur district said.

The protests have forced the closure of some of the country’s biggest garment plants, crippling the sector, a mainstay of the nation’s economy.

Tens of thousands of workers have taken to the streets in Gazipur and neighbouring industrial hubs of Ashulia and Savar, over the wage fixed by the government which they say is still too low.

While pro-government unions and the manufacturers have accepted the new figure, left-leaning groups are demanding a US$100 wage, saying that amount is the minimum needed to maintain a decent life.

Protests against poor pay and conditions have gathered momentum since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in April on the outskirts of Dhaka that killed 1,135 people.

Two workers were shot dead by police on Monday and hundreds have been injured in the violence that began after the government announced the 76 per cent hike earlier this month.

One of the leaders arrested on Tuesday, Mohammad Kafiluddin, heads a union based in Gazipur, while three are members of a union affiliated with the Communist Party, including its district head, Ziaul Kabir Khokan, union officials said. Details of the fifth leader are unknown.

Bangladesh’s US$22 billion garment industry is the world’s second largest after China’s and employs four million workers, most of them women.

The new wage is still below that given to workers in other major exporting nations, including Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Union leader Moshrefa Mishu, who heads the Garment Workers Unity Forum, said she has been threatened by unknown callers since rejecting the rise.

“They threatened to kill me if I don’t stop the protests,” she said, adding police have raided the homes of at least 10 Gazipur-based garment union activists belonging to her union.

Mishu was detained for five months in 2010 during one of the country’s deadliest unrests against low wages. She still faces 11 charges stemming from those protests.

Unions have been targeted by the country’s intelligence agencies in the past. Key union leader Aminul Islam was picked up last year allegedly by plain-clothed policemen and was later found murdered.