Garment workers' protests over disparity in their new wage structure once again turned violent yesterday as they clashed with law enforcers and vandalised some factories and vehicles in Savar, Ashulia and Gazipur -- the apparel manufacturing hub of the country.
At least 72 people, including 15 policemen and two journalists, were injured in the clashes that led to long tailbacks on both sides of Dhaka-Aricha and Dhaka-Mymensingh highways.
Operation of around 170 garment factories was suspended, fearing further unrest. Members of Border Guard Bangladesh had been deployed in the areas around 10:00am to keep the situation under control, reports our Savar correspondent.
A number of workers alleged that they had been beaten up by law enforcers during peaceful protests.
Talking to The Daily Star yesterday evening, Monnujan Sufian, state minister for labour and employment, said her ministry called an emergency meeting today to discuss the situation with the members of the committee formed on Tuesday to review the wage structure for garment workers.
At a press conference at her residence last night, Monnujan urged the agitating workers to calm down and not to resort to violence at factories or on the streets.
She further said any discord would be resolved through discussions in the light of labour law, and that she would seek the prime minister's intervention, if necessary.
Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi also called upon the agitating workers to return to work, saying their concern would be addressed within a month.
Garment workers took to the streets for the fourth consecutive day yesterday, a day after the government assured them that it would address the disparity in the new wage structure within a month.
A number of trade union leaders said the workers might have not been informed properly about the decision made at a tripartite meeting between government officials, union leaders and garment factory owners on Tuesday.
The meeting unanimously agreed to redress the disparity in the new wage structure implemented last month. It also formed a 10-member body to review the wage structure.
“There were some problems in the third and fourth grades of the minimum wage structure,” said Shamsunnahar Bhuiyan, workers' representative in the minimum wage board formed for garment workers in January last year.
“We tried to discuss openly the disparity in wages at different grades, but there was not enough time to do that,” she told this newspaper over the phone.
It is true that the wages were not hiked proportionately in all grades, Shamsunnahar pointed out.
The increase in wages in other grades, except for the seventh one, was relatively low, she added.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, a workers' rights platform, said they wanted to submit written complaints to the wage board about the wage discrimination in different grades, but they were not given the chance.
It is sad that the workers took to the streets even after the announcement of a review of the wage structure, he mentioned.
“I think the message has not been conveyed properly to the workers ... There is a chance of misunderstanding among them.”
He further said the difference in the wage structure in various grades should have been addressed earlier.
Sirajul Islam Rony, a union leader and workers' representative in the 2010 wage board for garment workers, said there is a disparity in the grades.
Union leaders also alleged that factory owners did not add five percent annual increment to the hiked basic and gross salaries set in the new wage structure.
Meanwhile, Garments Sramik Trade Union Kendra in a statement claimed that some people identifying themselves as law enforcers picked up its Vice President Ziaul Kabir Khokon from his Gazipur house on Tuesday night.
In Savar, a group of garment workers of Al-Muslim Group refused to join work and blocked Dhaka-Aricha highway in Ulail area around 7:30am, demanding a revision of the new wage structure, according to witnesses and police.
They also called for justice over the death of Sumon Mia, a worker at Anlima Textile Ltd, who was killed during protests in Savar on Tuesday.
Later, police rushed to the spot, charged batons on the demonstrators and cleared the highway within half an hour.
Almost at the same time, workers of Anlima Textile Ltd and Standard Group launched a protest and blocked Ulail-Shadhapur road over revision of the new wage structure.
Around 10:00am, workers from several other garment factories joined them and blocked the Dhaka-Aricha road in Ulail bus stand area.
Police fired several tear gas canisters, used water cannons and charged batons to disperse them.
Sporadic clashes, and chase and counter-chase between workers and police took place at different points in Savar till noon. During the two-hour clash, at least 25 workers and eight policemen were injured.
“We were demonstrating peacefully in the morning. But police along with plainclothes men attacked us,” alleged a worker of Al-Muslim Group.
Besides, some female garment workers said policemen charged batons on them during the clash.
In Ashulia, hundreds of workers from several factories blocked different spots on Abdullahpur-Bypile and Nabinagar-Chandra highways, and fought with law enforcers, leaving at least 10 workers and seven policemen wounded.
In the evening, Sana Shaminur Rahman, superintendent of police of industrial police Dhaka-1, told journalists that 15 policemen were injured in clashes.
About the death of Sumon, he said the worker was not killed in police firing and that police were probing it.
Sumon's sister Hashi Begum told this newspaper yesterday afternoon that they were taking his body to their ancestral village in Shariatpur for burial.
In Gazipur, at least 20 workers and two journalists were injured in clashes at different places, including Gazipura, Naojora and BSCIC areas.
To keep the situation under control, BGB personnel were deployed in Gazipura, Hotapara, Konabari and Mouchak areas and other places in Tongi.
Vehicular movement on Dhaka-Mymensingh and Dhaka-Tangail highways slowed down due to the demonstrations.
Meanwhile, several owners claimed that their factories were vandalised by agitating workers yesterday.
Md Iqbal Hossain, managing director of Patriot Eco Apparels Limited, said his factory in Tongi BSCIC area was running well despite the protests over the last three days.
But yesterday, agitating workers from nearby factories, closed for an indefinite period, vandalised it and took away goods, he said.
Iqbal said it all happened between 10:30am and 11:00am when 1,800 workers were on duty at his factory.
“They [the outsiders] also torched a motorbike on the factory premises. But the workers of my factory did not damage anything.”
The protesters also allegedly vandalised some factories in Savar, Ashulia and Gazipur.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) could not give any number of affected factories.
BGMEA President Siddiqur Rahman said many factories have been shut fearing massive unrest.
“We are observing the situation as the government has formed a committee for reviewing the wage structure,” he said.
Garment exports accounted for 82 percent of Bangladesh's exports worth $36.66 billion in fiscal 2017-18. More than 40 lakh people work in the sector.