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Bangladesh on Fire: Angry Workers Torch One of Nation’s Largest Factories

Violence continues to consume Bangladesh as another fire engulfed a garments factory on November 29, reportedly started by workers enraged over rumors that a fellow colleague was killed by police.

The inferno consumed the Standards Group factory in Gazipur, approximately twenty-five miles from Dhaka, the nation’s capital. The fire quickly spread to four adjacent buildings, frustrating attempts by firefighters to contain it. Mahbubur Rahman, a fire department official, said, “We are still struggling to control the flames.”

So far no casualties have been reported, astonishing since the factory is among the ten largest in the country, employing more than 18,000 workers. And while there has been no official confirmation of which retailers contract with the factory, there is allegedly some photographic evidence that Li and Fung Ltd., Marks and Spencer Group PLC, Sears Canada Inc., Uniqlo, Zara, Wal-Mart, Gap Inc. and American Eagle Outfitters all sourced their apparel at the factory.

Police officials have vehemently denied that a worker was killed by them and have been  attempting to uncover the full extent of the motivations for what appears to be a collaborative act of arson between factory workers and local sympathizers. Mohammed Kamruzzaman, a police officer who patrols the area, said, “We are investigating to find out the reason for this heinous act.”

Gazipur has been center stage for the  persistent political violence that has plagued Bangladesh, the  result of a contentious dispute between factory workers and owners over raising the minimum wage. Even after the Bangladesh Ministry of Labor officially signed off on the new minimum wage recommendations from the ad hoc Wage Board, simmering tensions have failed to subside. More than 2,000 garment factory workers took to the streets in Gazipur, violently demanding that recently shuttered factories reopen and that wage increases take immediate effect.

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Also, last week there was a coordinated attack on a car transporting three officials from JHK Trader SRL, a Spanish retailing company. They were part of a three car caravan carrying seven officials in total passing through Dhaka, the nation’s capital, en route to the Wisdom Attires factory in Narayanaganj.

Frightened by the sudden attacks, JHK plans to pull its business from Bangladesh. According to Reaz-Bin Mahmood, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the climate of fear and insecurity will make it difficult to attract buyers. “We want security for the retailers and brands, in the interests of the garment sector. It will be very difficult to retrieve the work order, as the buyers were scared by the attacks.

The violence is leading many experts to wonder if, rather than bringing a conclusion to civil unrest, the newly minted salary structure will only stoke the embers of further conflict. While a final compromise was reached both sides expressed some disappointment with the specifics of the deal. In particular, the factory owners only capitulated begrudgingly. Speaking to the AFP, Mahmood said, “We have accepted the wage board decision following the Prime Minister’s request. But it’ll be difficult for many of us to raise the wages, if the Western retailers don’t hike order prices by 10% to 15%.”

Mohammed Atiqul Islam, head of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, pointed to the arson as an example of the self-destructive nature of factory workers’ protests. “Now all the workers are at risk of becoming jobless.”