Nearly 400 workers of an Italian-owned factory shuttered by the pandemic yesterday attempted to lay siege to the labour and employment ministry at the Secretariat demanding dues.
Stopped short by police, the demonstrators then went on to stage a rally on the road in front till 2:00 pm, chanting demands for the payment of 11 months' salary, two Eid bonuses, re-opening of the factory and reinstatement of their jobs.
They had started off from National Press Club in the capital around 10:30 am, said knitting operator Mohammad Ashraful Islam, who has worked for 18 years at the factory of A-One (BD) Ltd inside Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ) at Savar.
Some 1,100 workers under different grades lost their jobs on April 9 this year when the shutdown was announced, he told The Daily Star over the phone from the rally.
The owner was desperate to sell off the unit as the company has no money for lack of work orders alongside other fallouts of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
A fraction of the dues were managed by the DEPZ from a buyer, resulting in 1,000 workers getting Tk 20,000 each while some others Tk 10,000 each on May 18. But nearly 47 workers got nothing at all, he said.
"We worked in January, February and March but we were not paid…The owner is still in the country. We also failed to contact him," said Islam.
"We tried to get the payment from the DEPZ…the DEPZ gave assurances 10 times of paying the workers but actually they did not pay us," he said.
Instead of the DEPZ keeping to its promise of selling off the factory's goods to pay off workers, the establishment was rented off to another person who has not offered any employment, he added.
The workers will get one month's basic pay for each year of employment, gratuity, provident fund and other legal service benefits, said Md Abdus Sobhan, general manager of the DEPZ.
A-One (BD) was shut down for failing to make payments, he said, adding that it owed the DEPZ Tk 2.5 crore and its lease agreement with the zone authority was cancelled on April 18.
The workers' arrears amount to Tk 4.75 crore and though some $40,000 could be managed and provided to the workers, it was not the final payment, he said.
The DEPZ has been in contact a couple of times with the owner, now barred from leaving the country, but he is unable to come up with the payments, said Sobhan.
A DEPZ auction to sell off the factory on 3.5 acres of land a couple of months ago was at the final stages but got halted for a writ petition filed by a bank which the company owed Tk 50 crore, he informed.
"We have also applied to the High Court for vacating the writ petition so that we can sell the factory to at least to pay Tk 4.75 crore arrears to the workers," said Sobhan over the phone.
The court's verdict is due mid-December. "We have to wait till then because it is a court issue now," he said.
"The DEPZ should seriously take up the responsibility of the payment of the workers," said Mohammad Faridul Islam, president of National Garment Workers Federation's Ashulia wing.
The company's Italian owner could not be reached over the phone despite several attempts.
A-One (BD) Ltd was a 100 per cent foreign-owned sweater manufacturing factory, and it had about 1,076 employees before it was closed on April 18.
The company had been failing to continue its normal production since December 2019 due to shortage of raw materials, availability of sufficient order and recurring order cancellation for worldwide coronavirus cases, said Nazma Binte Alamgir, general manager for public relations of the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (Bepza), in a statement.
Factory workers did not get a three-month salary from their management at that time. Considering the fact, the land lease agreement of the company was terminated on April 18, she said.
Since the factory owner could not run the factory, the Bepza was trying hard to find a suitable investor, who is willing and capable of operating it. But nothing happened.
Finally, the Bepza went for the auction process, Nazma said.
But in the middle of the auction process, Dhaka Bank filed a writ petition against the auction, and the High Court passed a stay order on the process for a month and later extended it by another month, she said.
In order to vacate the stay order to start the auction process, the Bepza filed a petition with the High Court. The hearing continues, Nazma said.
The Bepza has filed another appeal before the Appellate Division to declare the Dhaka Bank writ unlawful, she said.