THE failure of the management of the Tuba Group to clear the dues of some 1,600 workers leading to their fast-unto-death protest programme has thrown this already troubled garment sector into a fresh spiral of crisis. Because, with the entry of the industry's apex body Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the government in the negotiations to pay three months' salary plus Eid bonus to the demonstrating workers, it is no more the internal problem of a particular company. And with some 11 left-leaning organisations expressing solidarity with the agitating workers under the banner of the Tuba Group Sramik Sangram Committee to realise their five-point demand, the grievances of the Tuba employees have assumed a significance broader than that of a particular group of workers. All this has been possible thanks to the shamelessness, chicanery as well as callousness of the people who own the company.
It is heart-wrenching that when their colleagues in other garment factories were happily enjoying the Eid holidays, reuniting with their families in the countryside, 1,600 workers of Tuba Group were forced into this pitiable condition. When the whole nation was in celebratory mood, these people were crying in the wilderness to get paid for the work they have already done. To think that the company earned Tk. 39 crore selling jerseys for the World Cup football and other garment products overseas from January until June, but failed to pay the workers with whose labour those products were created. No wonder this is from the self-same owner whose callousness was to blame for the deaths of some 1,200 workers in another of his factories, Tazreen Fashions, in Ashulia in November 2012.
Shrewdly using Tuba Group owner's imprisonment in the Tazreen Fashions fire case as a ploy, the company management has dropped the burden of paying its workers in the government's lap. One is baffled at this kind of excuse bordering on the preposterous. Why should a company fail to pay workers on the ground of its owner being in jail, if it can run and also earn tens of crores of taka under the same condition? Though late, the workers have now been able to see through the cunning of the company management to use their misery to its unfair advantage. One is hardly surprised that the workers are now demanding cancellation of the bail on which the Tuna Group's owner was enlarged recently.
In the face of the Tuba workers' programme to gherao BGMEA office on July 24, leaders of this body had assured the workers that their dues would be cleared by selling two floors of the building housing the factory. One wonders how BGMEA leaders are going to make good on their promise given that those floors have already been mortgaged out to a private bank. As late as last Thursday, BGMEA leaders reiterated their promise of repaying the workers' dues through bank borrowing.
To the man in the street, it is again the garment industry as a whole, not the particular factory that failed to pay its workers, that is at fault. So, as the representatives of the garment industry, the BGMEA leaders can ill-afford to back down on their word. By rejecting the BGMEA leaders' request made on Sunday afternoon to end hunger strike and join work with the assurance that they would be paid two months' salary on Wednesday, the workers have shown signs of hardening their resolve further.
Now inspired by the support extended to their cause by different trade unions, civil society and political groups, the workers may go for tougher programmes. Worse yet, many of the workers, including some trade union leaders, who are on a hunger strike-unto-death have already fallen critically ill. Things are fast getting out of hand. Who is going to take responsibility if anything untoward happens to any of these workers or leaders on hunger strike since the day before the Eid?
There is hardly any room for further wasting of time in meeting the demands of the workers of Tuba Group. If the BGMEA leaders fail to live up to their word, the government, the labour ministry in particular, must step in.
There has been a lot of buck-passing over paying garment workers their due. We say enough is enough.
The writer is Editor, Science & Life, The Daily Star.