Monday, June 29, 2009

[olympiaworkers] Short fuse; 50, 000 workers on the streets & 50 factories burning in Bangladesh Jun 30 2009

The mass unrest in the garment industry continued on Monday (29 June) for
a third day...

On the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital city, in the industrial zone;
workers' rioting and demonstrations yesterday escalated to new heights. As
thousands of workers gathered in the morning, at 10am a group set off
towards the nearby Dhaka Export Processing Zone where many garment
factories are located. Police blocked their way and fierce fighting began
- in the pitched battle police teargas and rubber bullets left 100 workers

Other workers soon joined the protesters and informed them that work was
continuing as normal at the Hamim Group factory complex. Twenty thousand
workers began to march towards the complex. As the numbers of protesters
in the area swelled to 50,000 the security forces were simply overwhelmed;
the Dhaka District Superintendent of Police said; "An additional 400
policemen stood guard in front of the major factories. We tried our best
to disperse the crowd, but they were too many and too fierce."

There are reports that some workers at the Hamim complex tried to defend
the factory and clashed with the demonstrators as they approached
(presumably reluctant to sacrifice their workplace to the greater cause -
though whether these workers were garment workers or factory security
and/or management personnel is unknown). The approaching protesters were
said to be angry that these workers had failed to join the weekend
protests over the killing of two garment workers shot by cops - and that
the factory owners had, unlike other bosses, continued operating since the

The workers split into smaller groups and stormed the complex at around
10.15am. They sprinkled the buildings with petrol; a sweater factory,
three garment factories, two washing factories, two fabric storehouses ...
over 8,000 machines, a huge quantity of readymade garments, fabrics, three
buses, two pickup vans, two microbuses and one motorbike were all reduced
to ashes.

The crowd was thinking strategically. Once the buildings were ablaze some
workers returned to the highway and blockaded the road; consequently, the
fire services were unable to reach the blaze for several hours until
3.30pm - by which time the buildings were burnt to the ground.

Meanwhile, groups drawn from some of the other 50,000 workers and
participants (undoubtably other sympathetic non-garment workers and slum
dwellers would have been drawn in) roamed the area and attacked and
vandalised another 50 factories and 20 vehicles. Thick black smoke could
be seen across the city.

Though in public statements the garment bosses have been attempting to
maintain international confidence by playing up the continued economic
health of the industry it seems that some companies are beginning to feel
the pinch of the economic crisis. One report suggests that

The current global meltdown had a background part to play in the whole
thing as scores of factories turned sick due to reduced orders.
Low and delayed wage payments following the recession also helped
trigger the unrest... Many factory owners had truncated their
workforce to be more competitive against their international
competitors, industry insiders said. (Daily Star - 30 June 09)

The factory in Ashulia's S. Suhi Industrial Park, where the dispute that
sparked this unrest began(1), laid off most of its workers and sold to a
new owner in February due to a decline in orders from international
buyers. Laid off workers had apparently been regularly agitating for
re-employment at the unused factory at a higher wage rate;

The closure of the units of S Suhi Industrial Park Ltd was mainly
responsible for the latest labour unrest in garment factories in
Ashulia and Savar areas, a number of garment workers claimed.
Pretty Group in March started production only with the
sweater-manufacturing unit and kept the five other units of the former
S Suhi Industrial Park closed. Around 1,000 out-of-work workers of the
five units were mounting pressure on the new management to restart
those units soon, said garment workers.
The workers of the closed units along with other ill-paid workers of
some nearby factories, which are not doing so well, started a movement
to reopen the units and raise salary of workers, they said.
Failing to get their jobs back, they started to unite and threaten to
halt production in other factories unless the former S Suhi units are
reopened, a worker of Ha-Meem Group said requesting anonymity.(Daily
Star - 30 June 09)

But the new owners denied this, none too convincingly;

Manjur Rahman, manager and company secretary of Pretty Group, claimed
that this labour unrest had neither anything to do with his factory
nor was it triggered from his factory.

In fact, the truth is probably a little more subtle - the Pretty Group
dispute was the spark that set off an explosion waiting to happen. The
global economic crisis increases already pressured working conditions,
decline in real wages/purchasing power due to inflation and actual or
threatened unemployment; in Bangladesh a decline in income is a short step
away from hunger and starvation; many garment workers are already
permanently malnourished (as described here;

Where this workers' movement goes from here is anybody's guess. But the
ruling class is worried it may spread to the south-eastern port city of
Chittagong, another smaller center of the garment industry, with 700

Security has been beefed up with special surveillance over the
Chittagong city's apparel sectors as tension brewed here against the
backdrop of violence in the garment factories in Dhaka, police
officials and garments association leaders said on Monday.

Nothing is resolved. Watch this space...

1) See earlier articles here;

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