Now Bangladesh state turns on workers
KALPONA AKTER, of Bangladesh Centre for Labour Solidarity.
Former child worker in sweatshops, who has spoken abroad for Bangladesh workers.
Arrested on August 12 and still detained.
WAS the Bangladesh government's long-awaited decision to prosecute alleged 1971 war criminals a genuine response to public clamour for justice? A manouver to strengthen the ruling party against its opponents? Or a desperate move to divert attention before the state stamped down on militant workers?
At the end of last month the country's War Crimes Tribunal announced it had issued arrest warrants for four senior leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islam party, already in custody on other charges, whom it accuses of siding with Pakistan forces during the 1971 war for independence, when three million people were killed.
The news coincided with the announcement of a new increased minimum wage for garment workers, who had been waging militant strikes and demonstrations, and also came with moves to restore secular, democratic and 'socialist' elements in the republic's constitution.
But many workers said the promised increase still fell short of the living wage they needed, and vowed to continue their struggle. Bangladesh workers produce many of the garments on sale cheaply in High Street stores in Britain and other rich countries.
Now many trade unionists have had to go into hiding because of a police clampdown on militants. Unions say that at least 100 workers had been arrested since the strikes last month and 5,000 had been sacked. Police confirmed they had arrested 20 people, including four union leaders and seven women workers, in the past two weeks alone.
"Most of us are now on the run, living in fear as we are getting threats from the police," said Garment Workers Unity Forum president Mosherefa Mishu. Police have mounted nightly rampages through the slums which house the impoverished employees.
"At least 5,000 workers have been sacked for involvement in the protests. Hundreds are just leaving their jobs and going back to their villages," said Bangladesh Textile Garment Workers Federation president Mahbubur Rahman Ismail.
At least 12,000 workers face prosecution after police scoured images in the media to identify the protesters. They will face charges of violence, vandalism, arson and looting, with union leaders accused of inciting the workforce.
The vigorous police action against workers contrasts with the way employers have been able to ignore the law. A study by War on Want UK in co-operation with Bangladesh unions found that despite a 2006 labour law setting down an eight-hour working day, two thirds of garment workers were having to work up to twice those hours. The law was supposed to guard freedom of association, but workers who joined the union were harassed and bullied by managements. Women workers were worse-treated than men, and sacked if they asked for maternity leave.
Many workers have been struggling to manage on 1,662.50 taka (£15.29) monthly minimum wage, which the government agreed to put up to 3,000 taka (£27.59) a month, starting November. However many workers held out for their full claim of an immediate 5,000 taka (£45.99) minimum. Bangladesh workers make clothes for big Western companies like Tesco, H&M, Primart, Asda and Wal-Mart. But local employers say they fear rising costs - of fuel as well as wages - could lose the work to places which might be even cheaper. Since 2005 the international system of textiles quotas was abolished in favour of cut-throat open competition.
News report in Morning Star:
Report on Bangladesh garment industry from War on Want:
Bangladesh labour leaders fearing for safety, report from 'No Sweat'
Campaigners in Pittsburgh, USA, demand release of Kalpona Akter and other trade unionists.