IT IS unfortunate that the government preferred coercive measures than dialogue and negotiation between interested parties to ease the agitating apparel workers at Ashulia on the Savar outskirts of Dhaka. For the past two weeks, as New Age reported on Friday, apparel workers from the Ashulia industrial belt took to the streets to demand an increase in minimum wage, a section of the protesting workers also abstained from work. Considering how inflation and price increase of basic commodities have soared in Bangladesh since the minimum wage was last increased in 2013, and the amount was widely agreed to be inadequate, it is not unjust that the workers are demanding a wage increase. Instead of paying attention to the demands of the workers who bring more than two-thirds of the country’s annual export earnings, the government deployed additional police forces in the area, arrested and detained local and national labour leaders. On Wednesday, four cases were filed against more than 1,500 workers and 26 people were arrested accusing them of ‘instigating unrest’ in the apparel sector. Two apparel factory owners most affected by the current movement for wage increase, on the other hand, ordered a mass termination of jobs and the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association closed at least 55 factories in the area, terming the strike as ‘illegal.’ These punitive actions on part of the government and the BGMEA are a manifestation of their generally repressive attitude towards workers, particularly when a simple gesture of dialogue could have prevented the situation from turning into turmoil.
The prevailing uncertainty and unrest in the Ashulia industrial belt also prove that state is taking side with the owners of apparel factories. According to New Age reports, in November–December alone, three garment factory managements failed to pay the workers due wages and closed down factory without following the labour law. Unlawful closure of the factories, arbitrarily terminating the job of workers or denying them sick leave are common practice in the apparel industry. While the government takes stringent action against workers, there has hardly been any record of bringing factory management to book for failing to perform their duties as employers. Even when employers’ failure proved fatal, the government is seen dilly-dallying the legal process. This bias is detrimental to resolving the crisis at hand as well as any long-term improvement in industrial relations at large.
In order to resolve the crisis, we must acknowledge it is not the factory owners alone but the workers on strike too are incurring monetary losses. Therefore, the government and respective authorities should immediately initiate a meaningful dialogue between interested parties to negotiate a minimum living wage, not a poverty wage. For an effective dialogue, police harassment of all labour leaders and workers must come to a stop.
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