Thousands of garment workers have taken to the streets of Bangladesh and Pakistan, clashing with law enforcement as they demand unpaid wages ahead of Eid-al Fitr, Islam’s largest holiday.
On Wednesday, Bangladeshi industrial police fired tear gas and waved batons to disperse protestors at some 50 garment factories in Ashulia, Savar, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chattogram. The largest demonstration took place at Civics Apparel in the capital of Dhaka, where 1,000 workers pressed for unpaid salaries, their wages in advance for May and a 100 percent bonus to mark the end of the fasting period of Ramadan.
Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the largest trade group for factory owners, told the Associated Press that workers had been paid until April, but some protestors claimed they had not received their salaries for the past three months. Some also said they were attacked without provocation, though Huq accused workers of vandalizing the factory, taking the owner hostage and blocking streets outside the factory, moving the police to take action. Up to 2,000 employees work at Civics Apparel, Huq said. She noted that factory owners agreed to pay the bonus when the melee ended.
Rehana Begum, one of the protestors, said garment workers were asking for their salary and bonus. “They can pay [at least] half of our salary [for May] so that we can go through the times of Eid,” she told the Associated Press. “We’ll rejoin work after the Eid holiday and they will pay the rest.”
The Daily Star reported that other factories faced similar scenes of vandalism and road blockades. Workers in one factory in Chattogram, it said, had been demanding bonuses for the past two days. Most protestors also withdrew after receiving reassurances of bonus payments.
In a joint statement, the BGMEA and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) threatened to shut down factories where incidents of unrest continued. They wrote that about 99 percent of its members have paid worker wages for March; just 46 factories—the same ones where protests are happening—are in arrears.
The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged 77 percent of Bangladesh’s vulnerable non-poor population below the poverty line, according to survey released Thursday by the Power and Participation Research Centre and BRAC Institute for Governance and Development. The telephone-based poll of 12,000 households found that incomes have plummeted by 62 percent in rural areas and 75 percent in urban slums.
Garment factories in Bangladesh are coming back online on a limited basis, though labor groups have expressed skepticism over safety measures meant to curb the spread of the contagion. The country has reported 26,738 positive cases of COVID-19 and 386 related deaths since the outbreak began.
In Karachi in Pakistan on Tuesday, thousands of workers at Denim Clothing Mills, which manufactures garments for multinational retailers such as H&M (which gave the facility a silver rating), protested for unpaid wages they had planned to take back to their hometowns during Eid.
Nasir Mansoor, secretary general of Pakistan’s National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), which organized the demonstration, told the Clean Clothes Campaign that workers continue to be fired, showing “clear evidence that the capitalists want to intimidate workers and suppress their movement.”
More than six million workers have been laid off, Mansoor said. Equally hard hit has been the informal sector, where 40 percent of workers, including under-the-radar home-based workers, have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Unemployed workers and their families, he added, have been starving for the past three months because the relief package announced by the Pakistani government has not yet reached them.
The NTUF and the Democratic Workers Federation have filed a lawsuit in Sindh High Court against the forced dismissals and non-payment of wages. According the labor advocates, employers are of the opinion that they’re not legally obligated to provide salaries or protect employment during the lockdown, which is currently being lifted in phases despite reporting more than 43,960 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 900 COVID-19-related deaths since March.