The specialized unit of the Bangladesh police, which provides security for the South Asian nation’s industrial zones, said workers of Ha-Meem Group in the Tongi’s Mill Gate area in Kaliakoir Upazila were demanding that factory bosses extend their Eid-ul-Fitr holiday to 10 days, despite the government’s request that they be limited to three.
“They resorted to vandalism at the factory in the afternoon before blocking the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway,” Jalal Uddin, additional superintendent of Gazipur Industrial Police, Zone 2, told bdnews24. Demonstrators who were blocking roads in the Tongi’s Mill Gate and Biswaspara areas in Kaliakoir Upazila threw brickbats at officers who tried to remove them, prompting law enforcement to fire rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd, Uddin said, adding that traffic was disrupted for roughly 20 minutes. At least 20 injured workers and one police officer were given first aid.
Joly Talukder, general secretary of Garment Workers Trade Union Centre, said the demonstration was justified. “The workers have not been taking a day off for one and a half months,” she told The Daily Star. “They protested after the management declared that the Eid break would only be for three days.”
Police, Talukder added, shot the workers at point-blank range, resulting in the grievous injuries, some of which required hospitalization. “Incidents like these keep happening because the police shoot at workers with absolute impunity whenever they protest,” she said.
Authorities, Md Delowar Hossain, a worker of Ha-Meem Group, told bdnews24, later agreed to a seven-day break. Ha-Meem Group, which operates 26 garment facilities and employs 50,000 workers across 300 production lines, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. According to its website, clients include Gap, H&M, JCPenney, The North Face owner VF Corp. and Zara.
Similar protests have erupted across Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj as the holiday to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, celebrated this year from May 12-13, draws closer, though no injuries have been reported.
Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh’s largest trade group for garment factory owners, said in a video message Monday that 90 percent of its members have paid wages for April and 92 percent provided festival allowances to their workers in time.
But the financial reality of many garment workers is less than rosy, according to the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank, which published a study last week noting that just one in four garment factories benefited from a 105 million Bangladeshi taka ($1.25 million) government stimulus meant to allow factories to pay the salaries of their workers for from April through June in 2020. Furthermore, 25 percent of the factories that received loans laid off workers in breach of conditions.
While workers were laid off throughout 2020, April and May saw the highest rates of retrenchment. Smaller factories, which were less likely to receive a share of the stimulus, laid off as much as 10 percent of their workforces, the organization noted. “The [Directorate of Inspection of Factory and Establishment], the central bank and the associations had failed to monitor the irregularities,” the Centre for Policy Dialogue said. “The oversight functions of the authorities need to ensure that factories don’t benefit by depriving their workers.”
When it came to workers who lost their jobs, 59 percent received their salaries only, while 18 percent got nothing at all, the study, which polled 102 garment employers, 301 employed workers and 100 employed workers in the Dhaka and Gazipur districts, found. Just a fifth of the unemployed workers received a “limited amount” of aid from the government and nonprofits, with jobless females obtaining less support than their male counterparts. “The female workers borrowed more than male workers during this ongoing crisis,” the study said. “The food intake has also deteriorated mostly for female workers.”
Brands were generally “not responsive” about the issue of workers being laid off from their partner factories, the report added. Only 14.7 percent of the factories polled received requests from brands not to lay off or retrench workers, while just 1 percent said concerned brands agreed to pay related costs for not laying off workers. The contraction in work last year didn’t help, either. Fewer than half of brands (38.7 percent) paid the same or more for comparable orders than they did in 2019.
“It is crucial for all the actors to assess the impact of their decision to all other stakeholders and play their role to uphold corporate accountability,” the organization said.
In January, the Centre for Policy Dialogue estimated that as many as 357,000 of Bangladesh’s 4.1 million garment workers may have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, or more than six times the official figure of 56,372. As many as 37 percent of factories both laid off and hired workers during the pandemic, it added, with retrenched workers usually returned to production lines with reduced pay, downgraded contracts and evaporated benefits.