This employee of a garment factory of Tuba Group got a call on her phone informing her of her mother-in-law's death yesterday. She had been on hunger strike inside her Badda factory demanding unpaid wages and Eid bonuses. When she came downstairs to leave for home, she found the gates locked. Photo: Amran Hossain
Owners of Tuba Group backed by police confined more than 1,000 agitating workers for hours yesterday in an apparent bid to quell their ongoing protests for full payment of arrears.
The nine-hour confinement ended around noon when an unidentified man opened the gate of the building where the workers have been on hunger strike for 10 days. But the workers still refused to go to the BGMEA office to take partial payments promised earlier.
Police used loudspeakers to ask the workers to leave the protest venue and go to the headquarters of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Some 100 police personnel were deployed in the area, with repeated sirens from standing police vans filling the air.
The Daily Star spoke to several workers and labour leaders who accused the police and company owners of locking the gate, but police said they were not involved in locking the gate.
Chaos thickened when some ruling party men and a group of trade union activists supporting BGMEA's stance started beating up the protesters.
Samina Luthfa, a teacher of Dhaka University, and Saydia Gulrukh, an anthropologist, who were expressing solidarity with the protesters -- also came under attacks.
"We went to the BGMEA office several times. But it did not respond. Now it offers us two months' salary. We want full payments, including Eid bonuses, at our factory, not at the BGMEA office," Shiuly Akter, a 45-year-old sewing operator, said in the afternoon.
Standing 10-15 yards away from Tuba Group's factory building at North Badda in the capital, she, along with her colleague Moina, was trying to contact some of the workers inside the building.
Workers and reporters who were standing outside were barred from entering the building as police said they only allowed exit of workers from the protest site.
The workers were agitating and shouting slogans to express solidarity with around 300 of their colleagues who have been on hunger strike inside the building since July 28, the day before the Eid festival. The arrears were for the months of May, June and July, including overtime bills and Eid bonuses -- Tk 4.14 crore in total.
However, till 10:00pm yesterday, some 583 of the 1,458 workers employed at five factories of Tuba Group received two months' salaries from the BGMEA, according to the garment makers' platform.
The BGMEA said it cleared payments of 54 workers within 1:45pm and 323 workers within 6:00pm.
"A vested quarter wants to create instability in the garment sector by using the innocent workers," said Atiqul Islam, president of the association.
The gate of the factory building was locked hours after Tuba Group owner Delwar Hossain was freed from jail on bail. He could not be reached for comments as his phone was switched off.
Delwar had been detained since February in a case linked with a 2012 fire that killed 112 people at Tazreen Fashions, a garment unit of Tuba Group, in Ashulia on the outskirts of the capital.
Shiuly, who claimed around Tk 30,000 in dues with Tuba Group, said she could not pay house rent and grocery bills for the last two months. "My homeowner has already threatened to evict me."
Moina said her son was injured in a road accident and she had been borrowing for his treatment. She, however, refused to take partial salary from the BGMEA.
Apart from Shiuly and Moina, other workers too blamed the police for locking them in.
Some labour leaders having links with the BGMEA are putting pressure on the workers to receive two months' payments, but the workers have refused to do so, Jebunnesa Jebu, a member of the central committee of Garments Workers Unity Forum, said by phone.
Moshrefa Mishu, one of the organisers of the protest, was threatened with arrest, she said.
"There is a shortage of saline, doctors and nurses to attend our workers on the hunger strike," said Utpal, who works at the cutting section of a factory of Tuba Group.
Police, however, claimed they allowed entry of physicians to ensure treatment of the workers on hunger strike.
At noon, police entered the building and ousted labour leaders and activists who had joined the workers to express their solidarity.
At least 20 people were injured in the raid and 10 were taken to the police station. All but one was later released, IndustriALL Global Union, a federation of trade unions, said in a statement.
The law enforcers also foiled attempts of some left-leaning parties, who were expressing solidarity with the workers, to hold demonstrations in front of the factory building.
"We forced the outsiders to leave the building," said Mahbub Hasan, additional deputy commissioner (Gulshan zone) of Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
Police also beat up Zonayed Saki and Saiful Haque, leaders of left-leaning political parties.
"Our duty is to ensure law and order. We will not allow anyone to create blockades on the road," Mahbub said.
In the evening, Khushi Kabir, a human rights activist, and Imran H Sarker of Gonojagoron Mancha visited the spot.
"Police are depriving the workers of their rights. They are serving the interest of the BGMEA. The owner is bound to pay full salaries," Imran said.
Tuba Group Shramik Sangram Committee, a temporary platform having representatives from 15 labour organisations, was also barred from holding a press conference inside the building.
The workers announced that if outstanding payments are not made today, they would enforce strike in garment industrial areas on Saturday.
Besides continuing with the hunger strike, the workers will stage countrywide demonstrations today and tomorrow.
Monika Kemperle, assistant general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, called for immediate payment of outstanding wages and bonuses.
“The women and men who toil in the garment industry in Bangladesh are our members and we will fight for them. They are the backbone of a very profitable industry which can't afford to treat people like this.”