The Bangladesh apparel industry is in the midst of yet more upheaval.
A 24-hour deadline to make back payments to 1,500 workers of apparel manufacturer Tuba Group in Dhaka, Bangladesh, created a deadlock on Sunday in talks to end a workers’ hunger strike.
Government leaders, the association of employers and workers met Sunday, with ultimatums from all sides only exacerbating the standoff. The workers said they would continue their six-day-old hunger strike until all the points in their five-point agenda are addressed.
What makes the matter more complex is that the owner of Tuba Group, Delwar Hossain, the employer who workers are agitating against, is also the owner of Tazreen Fashions Ltd., and has been in prison since last February. A deadly fire at Tazreen claimed the lives of more than 111 workers in November 2012. Hossain was charge sheeted for the deaths of the workers, as was his wife and 11 others.
He has claimed that he is unable to make the payments to the Tuba Group workers from behind bars and would need to be out on bail to settle payment for the workers, who are demanding overdue wages. The workers are from five other factories Hossain owns in the Badda area.
Since the Tazreen fire, workers have demanded Hossain’s arrest, outraged that factory managers and security personnel reportedly locked an exit gate at the time, forcing workers to find escape routes through windows of the second and third floors of the factories. The call for justice — and Hossain’s imprisonment — were supported by workers in Dhaka and surrounding areas.
Now, many of those workers want Hossain released from jail on bail so that he can pay their overdue wages. Hossain is expected to be released early this week to make payments.
Meanwhile, Hossain’s mother-in-law is being held captive by workers in one of two Tuba Group factory buildings in Badda as workers give speeches, suffer from the effects of the long hunger strike and maintain their solidarity.
“She is being given food and water,” Shahnaz Begum, a worker, told WWD. “We need a guarantee for our own livelihood.”
Although most factories have been closed because of holidays for Eid-ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, and are only due to open later in the coming week, worker leaders warned Sunday that the unrest would spread across other factories from today, and that they would not accept offers put together hurriedly by the government in consultation with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association. They said they would also besiege the BGMEA office on Tuesday.
Worker leaders told WWD that the proposals were far below the monetary amount due the employees and lacked the assurances they needed.
At separate press briefings on Sunday, the labor leaders and the factory owner-government representatives each presented their points of view.
BGMEA officials said that they had assured workers that they would pay the workers, “on humanitarian grounds,” wages for two months. “The third month is only due on Aug. 10 and will be paid subsequently,” BGMEA vice president Shahidullah Azim told WWD. He explained that even if Hossain were released on bail, an examination of his bank papers showed that he could not make the required payments, for which the employers’ organization was willing to pay out on compassionate grounds.
Workers repeated that they would settle for nothing less than the three months arrears, as well as a one-month allowance for overtime and a bonus for the Eid holidays, for a total of an estimated 41.30 million taka, or $532,422. BGMEA estimates were closer to 25 million taka, or $322,289.
Labor leaders took a hard line on Sunday, rejecting the employer association’s offer and vowing a continuation of their hunger strike. Demands by workers include the immediate payment of three months salaries, a payment of arrears and bonus, compensation for their physical and mental sufferings due to the hunger strike, a cancellation of Hossain’s bail order and an assurance that workers would not lose their jobs after the strike ended.
“If our demands are not met, we will continue our agitation program and it will spread all over the country,” said Moshrefa Mishu, president of Garment Workers Unity Forum.
She said the agitation would spread across Dhaka on Monday, and other supporting workers spoke about surrounding BGMEA headquarters on Tuesday.
Workers and employers are again in the throes of additional suspicion and distrust as they allege “political motivation” as the cause of this “hardened approach.”
Workers claim the delay in paying their salaries is to increase the pressure for Hossain’s release on bail. BGMEA officials said Sunday that the workers were being led by “politically motivated leaders” since they were being offered immediate payment of much-needed money, which they continued to reject.
The hunger strike at the two buildings housing the Tuba Group factories are a further example of the changing dynamics between workers and employers in Bangladesh following the tragedies at Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza. There has been a growing awareness of rights among workers, as well as a slow growth in labor unions in garment factories across Bangladesh.
Over the last year, after the collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story building in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, in which 1,133 workers were killed, the government introduced a new labor law allowing workers to form trade unions without written permission from employers. Since then, 112 new trade unions have been formed.
Mishu spoke about plans to take the Tuba protest further. The newly formed Tuba Group Sangram Committee would follow up on this issue, she said, with the support of other labor organizations.
Negotiations are continuing even as workers maintain their hunger strike. They say they have less to fear than they would have in previous years.
“This has to be about support and resolution in the long run,” said Mishu.
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