Police yesterday clamped down on Tuba Group workers, forcing them to break an 11-day hunger strike and take a portion of their outstanding salaries.
Around noon, the law enforcers drove several hundred workers away from the protest site by using teargas and pepper spray inside the garment maker's 12-storey factory building in North Badda in the capital.
Nearly 1,500 workers had been staging protests -- around 300 of them on hunger strike -- in the building since July 28, the day before Eid-ul-Fitr. The arrears were for the months of May, June and July, including overtime bills and Eid bonuses.
Dejected, hundreds of workers, including the injured ones, went to the BGMEA office in the afternoon to receive two months' salaries offered by Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) earlier.
Meanwhile, Tuba Group Shramik Sangram Committee, a temporary platform of labour rights organisations, called strike in garment factories across the country tomorrow.
"Police were asking us to leave the place. Suddenly 15-20 police personnel stormed into the seventh floor and started spraying us with pepper," said Minhazul Haque Nahid, a 23-year-old agitating worker of Tuba Group.
“My eyes, nostrils and throat were burning. I couldn't see anything,” he said.
“We were on protests due to our hardship. What is our fault?" said a sobbing Bijli Begum, after being thrown out of the protest site.
Amid police action, workers were seen coming out rubbing their bloodshot eyes.
However, police denied the allegation of driving the workers away. "We did not force the workers to leave the site," said MA Jalil, officer-in-charge of Badda Police Station.
Rubi Akhter, a worker, said: “I was hit by the pepper spray from a close distance and I fell on the ground. Later my colleagues helped me come out of the building.”
Three hours before the police action, water supply to the building was cut, some workers said.
Workers were seen hanging ropes from the top floors of the building to collect drinking water from their relatives and colleagues outside.
But their bids failed as policemen cordoning the building were cutting off the ropes.
Police did not make it clear who cut water supply but a senior police officer on the spot said there was enough supply for the workers.
More than 200 garment workers were injured in the hour-long police action, said a leader of Tuba Group Shramik Sangram Committee.
Police also detained two trade union leaders -- Moshrefa Mishu of Garment Workers Unity Forum and Joly Talukder of Garment Workers Trade Union Centre. They were freed later.
Just before the crackdown began, hundreds of workers from nearby factories blocked Pragati Sarani to express solidarity with Tuba workers.
The traffic came to a halt amid clashes between the angry workers and police. Police fired rubber bullets and teargas shells to quell the protests.
Clashes continued for one and a half hours between agitating workers, police and a group of people opposing the hunger strike.
Fears gripped the neighbourhood as a group of 50-60 started chasing a rival group.
As The Daily Star spoke to a worker of Tuba, Aleya, another group of 15-20 threw brickbats on standing buses and cars, damaging dozens of vehicles. Panicked passengers were seen getting off the buses through windows.
Lata Begum, a worker from another factory nearby, hurried in to join street vandalism. "Why do police detain and beat workers when they agitate to realise their arrears?" she said.
Some other workers were seen with sticks in hand. Another worker was looking for brickbats.
The mayhem quietened after police stepped in. Accompanied by a group of ruling Awami League activists, law enforcers used truncheons and water cannons and fired blank shots to disperse the protesters. The road was freed after 2:15pm.
A clear spilt opened among trade unions when some workers said they were barred by labour leaders from taking salaries from BGMEA.
A section of workers blamed Moshrefa Mishu, president of Garment Workers Unity Forum, for prohibiting them from taking partial salaries. Mishu was not available for comment as her mobile phone was switched off.
Shahidul Islam Sabuj, a leader of Garment Workers Unity Forum, denied the allegation.
Defending Mishu, Minara Begum, another worker, said nobody forced her to stay inside the factory. “I just wanted full payments at the factory, not at the BGMEA office.”
All of Tuba Group workers -- 1,475 -- have collected two of their three months' outstanding salaries from the BGMEA headquarters at Karwan Bazar over the last two days, said Atiqul Islam, president of the association.
But concern over wages is far from over. Sumi Begum, a Tuba worker, said: "The owners may not give us the rest of the salaries.”