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THINGKING ALOUD: A never-ending tragedy

Dhaka Tribune

When will this cycle end?


Mohammad Tareq Hasan

May 5, 2022

Like every year, just before the Eid holidays, ready-made garment (RMG) workers had to resort to street processions demanding their full salary and bonus. Reports indicated that RMG workers demonstrated in Mirpur, Uttara, and Savar, causing traffic disruptions across Dhaka. Police dispersed them by shooting tear gas, injuring many workers.

Though we have become accustomed to seeing protests by RMG workers, these events are paradoxical if we consider that the RMG industry is one of the pillars of the country’s growing economy. Yet, these workers face neglect and misery, and just before the Eid holidays, their tragedies become more apparent to the naked eye.

The recent protests started after the government on April 11 instructed factory owners to pay 15 days’ wages before the holiday. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) claimed that factories were prepared to follow the directive, but “if any factory owners want to pay their workers for the full month, they can.”

This is unfortunate that the government advised not to disburse full salary — I do not think any service holder would have liked it if they did not get their full monthly salary and bonus before the Eid holidays.

Since the government announced the directive to pay trunked salaries before Eid, workers’ leaders predicted unrest, but the factory owners repeatedly told us there was no fear of turmoil. Still, since the decision was publicized, we heard the news about road blockades demanding full salary. Skeptics claimed that worker leaders uttered the demands for their interests or served a vested quarter.

One could argue that in capitalism, workers’ well-being is hardly a concern for the industry owners. In addition, they are motivated by profit-making possibilities. However, this tendency to hold back some money before the workers go on holiday is a labour management strategy for ensuring their timely return. But from the workers’ perspective, not receiving salary on time is a significant break of promise, as most workers would claim, “if we do not get our salary on time, there is no point in going to our family.”

The difficulties RMG workers usually face in getting their full salary and bonus seem incongruent with the export income earned by the garment sector. Following the Covid-19 setback, businesses have gained pace; in the last fiscal year, Bangladesh earned an export income of $38.75 billion. Besides, during the previous nine months (July-March) of this fiscal year, Bangladesh exported RMG products worth $31.42bn gaining a year-on-year growth of 33.81%.

While the sector is thriving in business volume, the workers had to take to the streets with demands to receive their salary on time.

Not an unprecedented event

Let us recap some events that shocked many of us during the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even though a stimulus package of Tk 5000 crore was announced for the RMG sector, from April to May 2020 alone, 18,000 workers were dismissed as per estimates of the Department of Inspection of Factories and Establishments. Moreover, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has found that as much as 42% of the RMG workers, primarily employed in micro, small, and medium-sized factories, did not receive help from the stimulus package.

If we look a little further back, during the first wave of Covid in the country, on the morning of April 4, 2020, many of us were shocked to see a rush toward Dhaka. This rang an alarm as the country was supposed to remain under lockdown to minimize the risks of spreading the virus. Late in the evening of that day, the BGMEA president requested the closure of all the factories during the lockdown period.

But by then, many had travelled to Dhaka, and many were stuck in between. As an institution, BGMEA restated that they could not force any factories to remain closed. Unfortunately, the government did not ask the factories to shut down; instead, it only discussed measures to ensure the workers’ salaries were on time to justify their questionable actions. The workers went through this toil as many did not receive their pending salary before the lockdown started on March 26 and were likely to lose their jobs if they would not report to the factory as and when instructed. The testimonies of the returnee garment workers revealed such concerns.

Bangladesh went into another lockdown phase in 2021, starting from July 23 until August 5. However, upon repeated requests from the industry owners, the authorities suddenly decided on the afternoon of July 30 to reopen export-oriented industries on August 1, including the RMG sector — while the entire country would follow the lockdown till 5 August. Therefore, people rushed to get back to the industrial cities to save jobs, but there was hardly enough public transport. Hence, these workers had to pay five to 10 times higher fares to reach their factories on time.

During the negotiations with the government, factory owners claimed they would start operations with the workers living near factory areas, and workers who travelled to the villages would join later. However, many workers said factory supervisors contacted them over the phone and asked them to join work on August 1. Ignoring health and social distancing directives, hundreds of thousands of workers travelled in crammed goods transports, auto-rickshaws, rickshaw vans, and even walked to their workplaces in Dhaka, Narayanganj, and Gazipur to save their jobs.

RMG workers toil throughout the year towards meeting production targets and eventually contribute to earning foreign currencies, but it is tragic to see them protesting for unpaid salaries. For demanding their rightful wage, workers face police brutality, and many workers lose their jobs having allegations of “creating disruption” in production.

Even if these protests do not turn into outright conflict, these events reflect the power imbalance between workers and owners — that culminated in the Rana Plaza calamity back in 2013.

Bangladesh will soon become a middle-income country, but when will RMG workers’ tragedies end?

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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