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     Volume 8 Issue 77 | July 10, 2009 |

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Current Affairs

Savar's RMG Mayhem

An Unsolved Mystery

Elita Karim
Ha-Meem Group filed a case against some 1,600 unnamed people in connection with the arson and vandalism at its factories. Photo: Shafiqul Alam

Agitation and violence, in the Ready Made Garment's industry, have become common features for the last few years. While many protests and demonstrations, considered revolutionary, have helped establish the compliance law in 2006 and have made both workers and employers aware of their rights and duties respectively, some of these violent demonstrations seem to pop out of nowhere and simply lead to nothing but loss of lives, damage of national assets and a shortfall in the country's economic growth. One is still mystified by the reasons behind the massive uproar amongst the workers, which led to the destruction of the Ha-Meem Group of industries in the outskirts of Dhaka. Thousands of workers had taken to the streets and had already vandalised at least 50 other factories in the area, including 20 vehicles when they entered the vicinity of Ha-Meem. According to reports, the workers were demonstrating for a pay hike for two days. On the third day the demonstrators stormed the Ha-Meem Group complex at Narasinghapur at around 10:00 am in the morning and set fire to the factories inside after pouring petrol. Apparently, the apparel group came under attack because its workers did not join the protest over the death of two workers in clashes with Ansars and police on the previous days.

As Ha-Meem Group filed a case against some 1,600 unnamed people in connection with the arson and vandalism at its factories in the Ashulia area last week, one wonders if these agitators will ever be identified at all. Initially, last week's chaos seemed to be the usual commotion that have been a part and parcel of the RMG sector for years. Some have also pointed out that there were many workers from Ha-Meem group as well who helped the agitators put fire on the factories, an easy conclusion to come up with, which might also answer some of the millions of hair raising questions connected to the incident. However, if observed closely, the attack on Ha-Meem Group was a little different, making it all the more mysterious. There are a handful of factories and industries in Bangladesh, which actually abide by the compliance law, Ha-Meem being one of them. It is not likely that the workers would suddenly carry out demonstrations. Colonel (rtd) Delwar Hossain, the Deputy Managing Director of Ha-Meem Group says that they are still in a confused state as they are trying to figure out why the Ha-Meem Group, of all factories, was attacked so brutally. “I refuse to believe that our workers were involved,” he asserts. On that particular day, says Col. Delwar, all the workers had arrived to attend just another regular workday. Little did they know that the whole factory would be burnt down! “At least 4000 of our workers had already stared working normally at the washing plants / factories and also the oven factories, when suddenly there was a hue and cry outside and quite immediately, thousands of people stormed the vicinity and began to attack.” Not only were the agitators vandalising and burning down the factory, but they were also grouping up on Ha-Meem workers and beating them up with objects. “The demonstrators were seen identifying Ha-Meem Group workers with the help of their identity cards and beating them,” says Col. Delwar. “Not only our workers, but a few of the officers and executives were beaten up as well. Many of our workers were trying to douse the fire with the help of fire extinguishers. One worker got badly burnt while trying to douse the fire in one particular section of the factories. He practically jumped into the fire and is still recovering from severe burns on his belly and chest.”

Inside the burned down factories. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

To make matters worse, the Ha-Meem authorities received no help from law enforcers for hours. “The fire brigade arrived three hours later,” says Col. Delwar. “By then, our factories were destroyed. When I tried to call the OC at the police station for help, he did not take it very seriously and said that help will be there shortly. They arrived hours later. In fact, the OC even told me that it was not possible for them to send forces immediately to all the factories, since a lot of them were vandalised in the area. He could not understand that the Ha-Meem factories were not only being vandalised, but they were also being burned down!”

The Ha-Meem authorities believe that there was a conspiracy involved due to which the factories were destroyed. The fact that the law enforcers and the fire brigade arrived hours later also strengthens their belief. Whether or not the attack was a part of a conspiracy case, the event does shed light on some of the government's failures. Firstly, according to the Ha-Meem authorities, the law enforcers in the Ashulia area openly showed their lack of concern and did not control the agitation immediately. “Any wise person can understand that there was probably a powerful backing, which led to the law enforcers behaving so nonchalantly,” says Col. Delwar. Secondly, the mob mentality still seems to be a predominant factor in such violence. Why is it that agitators and demonstrators, fighting for pay hikes, storm and vandalise industries in the Export Processing Zones (EPZ) or those adhering to the compliance law while leaving out the factories mushrooming in many parts of the country, where workers are still paid poorly and work under much worse conditions?

It is high time that the government gets a grip and forms the much awaited Industrial Police that the Home Minister Sahara Khatun had announced a couple of weeks ago. Not only is it required of the government to tackle the frequenting agitations in the RMG sector, but also monitor the factories' working mechanism, making certain that they strictly abide by the compliance law. The government must stop the random mushrooming of garment factories that do not provide basic rights to the workers in various corners of the country. Burning down of the Ha-Meem factories should be chaos enough for the government to put on it's thinking cap and solving this age-old mystery.


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