More than 400 garment factories were abruptly forced to suspend production yesterday thanks to a rally backed by Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan to demand a 170.5 percent pay rise.
“What the garment owners are pushing for as minimum wage is not rational. We want to negotiate a realistic salary,” Shajahan said at the rally organised by Garment Sramik Samannay Parishad, a federation of trade unions in garment sector, at Suhrawardy Udyan in the capital.
The minister's role at the demonstration, attended by thousands of garment workers without leave of absence from their employers, was criticised by industry stakeholders, who viewed it as a conflict of interest.
“Being a minister he cannot chair a programme of a garment workers' platform. He is a minister for all. For workers as well as the owners,” said a garment owner preferring not to be named.
A former president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the garment makers' platform, said the gathering was unnecessary as an independent wage board is working to fix the new minimum wage.
“But, it was the desire of the minister -- we do not have any choice,” said the owner of a garment factory situated in Ashulia.
“The trade union leaders sent vehicles for the workers -- and my factory emptied just like that. I am sure the situation was similar at other factories,” he added.
Another owner said the rally could have taken place on a Friday, when most of the garment factories remain shut.
“It would not have caused abrupt disruptions to production. It is unreasonable of the minister to force us to write-off the day.”
However, Sirajul Islam Rony, workers' representative on the wage board, said the minister was within his rights to chair the programme “as he is the president of a garment sector trade union”.
“Being a trade union leader, the minister always has empathy with the workers and their needs,” he told The Daily Star over telephone.
Over at the rally, Shajahan Khan alleged “many terrorists” vandalised the workers' vehicles to prevent them from joining the demonstration. In fact, it was the rally-bound workers who vandalised factories and blocked roads and highways ( Read the Story).
He said the 20 percent rise in basic salary, or the increase in minimum wage to Tk 3,600 from Tk 3,000, as proposed by the owners, is too low to improve the living standards of the garment workers, and called for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's intervention.
The workers' representative on the wage board called for a minimum wage of Tk 8,114 per month.
The minister also said at the rally, “It is unjust that the owners sack you [the workers] for the slightest of offences. This should not be the case.”
He went on to say he would do “whatever needed” for the garment sector to flourish.
“Some people are lying against me; they are trying to destroy my image. This has to stop. I have always worked for the workers and I will continue to do so.”
He also came down heavily on Ahmed Shafi, chief of Islamist group Hefajat-e Islam, for his recent derogatory comments about women, particularly those working in the garment sector.
This, however, is not the first time that the shipping minister has run into a spot of controversy.
Other than his ministerial duties concerning one of the modes of transport in the country, he is a leader of the transport workers' federation and the owner of a transport company.
Shajahan has allegations of extortion against him, and at the same time, he serves as an adviser to the government's road transportation and road safety councils.
The minister could not be reached despite several attempts.
Garment workers at a rally organised by Garments Sramik Samannay Parishad in the capital's Suhrawardy Udyan demanding, among others, fair wages, reinstatement of trade privileges under the Generalised System of Preferences, and ensuring safety of female workers. Photo: Star