Libcom.org Dec 18 2010
Recent worker deaths in the Bangladeshi garment industry from police repression and from a factory fire.
After lengthy negotiations since 2006 a minimum wage pay scale for garment workers was finally implemented from November 2010(1). But on receiving their wage packets workers in many factories found less pay than expected. Some factories simply ignored the new minimum wage, elsewhere previously agreed arrears payments were missing. Often no account was taken of seniority - workers of many years experience were downgraded to the same level as newcomers. Some employers downgraded their whole workforce in the pay scale, so minimising their wage rises.
As workers realised the shortfall on Saturday, strikes and demonstrations began; in Dhaka, the capital, thousands of workers at Ashulia in Savar, Rupganj in Narayanganj and in Gazipur vandalised factories, blocked roads and fought cops. At Gazipur a dozen workers were injured in an attack by managers after demanding payment according to the new structure, while in Narayanganj ten managers were attacked by workers.
In Chittagong, the south-eastern port city, over 100 garment workers of Young One Group in the city’s Economic Processing Zone (EPZ) walked out to protest the new pay structure; bosses initially tried to confine the workers to the factory by locking the gates, but strikers forced their way into the streets. Marching through the EPZ, workers brought out other factories in solidarity. As the crowd swelled to 2,000, they ransacked several of the company’s units, beat up several company officials and locked them in the factory. The Executive Director and other management personnel were later hospitalised.
(Young One built the ‘world’s largest shoe manufacturing plant’ near Chittagong; the $100 million plant employs 30,000 people and produces 100,000 pairs of shoes a day.)
The unrest continued on Sunday; in and around Dhaka 3,000 workers fought cops and blocked roads – while the Chittagong EPZ was forced to close as 4,000 workers battled police. As clashes intensified police fired 600 rounds of rubber bullets, 150 teargas canisters and made numerous baton charges. Workers replied with missiles and sticks; roads were blocked with burning and vandalised vehicles while 11 factories and 20 other commercial buildings were ransacked.
This was the first major test of the Industrial Police unit recently formed to curb workers unrest - and they sought to show a firm hand. Cops eventually began using live rounds and shot dead four people. Eight others received bullet wounds. Across the country around 200 were injured, including 50 cops.
26 die in another factory fire
As the unrest subsided over non-payment, another recurring feature of garment workers’ lives returned(2). Over 250 have died in factory fires in the past decade, almost wholly due to management disinterest in adhering to safety regulations and state disinterest in enforcing these regulations.
On Tuesday 14th at Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, fire broke out on the 9th floor of an 11 floor factory building of the Ha-Meem Group. On the 10th floor 300 workers were taking their lunch break at 1pm. (Most of the 6,000 workforce had left the building for lunch, otherwise the casualties could have been far higher.) The 10th floor was quickly engulfed in darkness and thick smoke. Panic ensued and some began to throw themselves out of windows - but survivors reported that most casualties were caused by workers falling from ropes improvised from rolls of cloth and hung out of the windows;
Witnesses said four out of seven exit staircases were closed. Desperate to flee the heat and smoke, some workers jumped off the windows, while some fell trying to get to the ground using rolls of cloth.
Many others were injured hurtling down the stairs. [...]
Mozammel, one of the injured, said, "As someone screamed 'fire', many ran out of the 10th floor while many like me stayed in the canteen thinking it was something about the agitation over wages."
"Within minutes, we were enveloped in thick smoke. We then ran to the staircases but failed to go down for excessive heat," he continued.
He said they broke the windowpanes and hung long cloths to climb down. Many fell to the ground trying to get down this way. http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=166145
Management claim there was adequate safety equipment and training but workers say that only a few from each floor were given basic training;
Many workers said the authority did not select all the workers for training. Only a few from each floor got the chance so that production was not hampered.
They added they were mostly trained how to move downstairs in case a fire incident. They were kept in the dark about extinguishers and other way outs.
Worker Wasim Akram said he received no such training although he had been working there for more than three years.
Garment factory bosses are notorious for insisting exit doors and gates remain locked to prevent theft of materials. This has been one of the main contributory causes of fire deaths over the years;
Some injured workers alleged all the three fire escapes on the ninth floor, where the fire originated, were locked and at one stage some security personnel locked all the exits on the ground floor.
Hundreds of firefighters brought the blaze under control by 7.30pm and continued to search for bodies and survivors.
From here, things will take their predictable course. Compensation will be paid to bereaved families, there will be an official enquiry into causes that will promise improvements in conditions. The industry will seek to reassure foreign investors concerned about their Corporate Image, and it will all fade from public memory with little changed. Until, sooner or later, there will be another factory fire.
1) See earlier story; http://libcom.org/news/rage-over-wage-04082010
2) See earlier story; http://libcom.org/news/death-traps-work-home-fire-poor-bangladesh-10032010