Bangladeshi Police Fire Rubber Bullets at Protesting Garment Workers

By Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

Unrest Spreads a Day After Two Demonstrators Are Killed

A woman ran for cover as police fired tear gas at a factory protest in Gazipur, Bangladesh, on Tuesday. European Pressphoto Agency

Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesting Bangladeshi garment workers on Tuesday as unrest spread outside the capital here, a day after two demonstrators were killed during a protest for higher wages and better working conditions.

The government on Tuesday sent in troops from the Bangladesh Border Guard to restore order in factory areas. Weeks of sometimes-violent strikes have disrupted production in the apparel industry, which is a mainstay of the impoverished South Asian country’s economy.

A government panel this month recommended raising the minimum wage for garment workers to roughly $67 a month, an increase of 77%. After initially resisting, apparel manufacturers have said they support the move, which is expected to take effect Dec. 1.

Large unions have expressed support for the increase, but some workers have said it was inadequate. Workers also want safety improvements in an industry plagued by fatal fires and other accidents. A garment-factory complex collapsed here in April, killing more than 1,100 people.

Around four million people, mostly women, work in Bangladesh’s garment factories, which have become important suppliers of inexpensive clothing to retail chains in the U.S., Canada and Europe. The industry accounts for about 80% of Bangladesh’s merchandise exports.

Tuesday’s unrest flared after two workers died in a clash with police Monday evening outside the GMS Composite Knitting Ltd. factory in Gazipur, about 20 miles north of Dhaka. Police identified the dead workers as Badsha Mia, 25 years old, and Ruma Akter, 22, both workers at GMS.

Workers reached by telephone said police opened fire on protesters who were angry about an alleged assault on a seamstress at the factory. “We heard that a line chief had beaten up an [sewing-machine] operator,” said Nasima Akter, a worker at the factory. “We went outside to protest and clashes broke out with police. Then I heard gunshots.”

Police official Shamsur Rahman said outnumbered officers fired rubber bullets to protect themselves when surrounded by angry workers outside the GMS factory. He declined to comment on how Mr. Mia and Ms. Akter died.

A doctor at Enam Medical College Hospital, where Mr. Mia was taken, said his body appeared to have been hit by shotgun pellets. The doctor said Mr. Mia was pronounced dead on arrival.

Labor activists said Mr. Mia’s body was taken from the hospital by relatives and buried without an autopsy.

Shamsul Arefin, a GMS director, blamed outsiders for the violence at the factory and said that no workers were assaulted in the factory. “Some outsiders entered [the factory] and spread a vicious rumor about a worker being assaulted,” he said. “Some workers got agitated and started to vandalize the machinery, so we declared the factory closed. They then clashed with police outside the factory.”

Mr. Arefin said his company didn’t tolerate sexual harassment or workplace violence.

The proposed minimum-wage increase would put Bangladesh in the same league as other garment exporters. In India the minimum wage is $71; in Pakistan, $79; Sri Lanka, $73; Vietnam, $78; and Cambodia, $80, according to the United Nations International Labor Organization.

Source: Wall Street Journal