After a long period of relative quiet, workers are again taking mass action in the Bangladeshi garment industry. Also; some comments on the recent wave of political 'disappearances'.
Since the deployment of the new Industrial Police Force (IPF) in 2010 struggles had been much reduced by the IP's innovative tactics(1). But recent events in Dhaka's industrial suburb of Ashulia and elsewhere suggest that workers' anger, solidarity, willingness to struggle and sheer weight of numbers can't be contained indefinitely.
Thursday, May 12th 2012, Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka; during the evening shift Salman, a store room worker at the Hameem Group factory, is reprimanded by a manager for using his mobile phone at work(2). The argument escalates into a physical fight. What happens next is unclear. According to police and management Salman was then taken to jail; it was reported matter-of-factly by several newspapers that;
According to the police...the director beat up Salman and handed him over to the police, they said. Ashulia police confirmed that he was sent in jail on Saturday.
But a different, even worse, version of events was soon to circulate amongst workers...
Saturday morning, May 14th, Hameem Group factory; Workers arrive at the factory to begin work. Seeing that Salman is still absent and hearing of the incident on Thursday, rumours spread that Salman was tortured to death by the managers and his body hidden. The workers gather in the factory, demanding to know what has happened to Salman - the Industrial Police arrive and begin trying to disperse the workers. The workers resist the cops and intense fighting breaks out. A store room is set ablaze and sweater machines are vandalised. By 10am the clashes spill out onto the main Dhaka-Tangail highway where police make repeated baton charges and workers respond with volleys of bricks, burn tires and block traffic.
The Hameem Group workers call out workers from neighbouring factories to join them; soon thousands of workers are fighting with police. The cops fire rubber bullets and tear gas. In the chaos, there are chases and counter-chases - in a crowd running away from a police charge a female garment worker, Nahar, 30, is hit by a bus and killed.
Workers begin attacking garment factory buildings along the highway, damaging 50 properties. Over 50 vehicles, 12 belonging to the Hameem Group, are also damaged. Fearing a contagious effect, 300 local factories stop production and send workers home - losing millions in lost production and adding to the mass of workers on the streets.
A police constable has a rifle snatched from him by a group of workers. Several TV crews are attacked and their cameras smashed, probably partly in response to recent use of film footage to identify rioters. Clashes continued until 1.30pm, by which time the area is swamped by cops and the Rapid Action Batallion para-militaries.
Apart from the dead worker, over 100 people are injured, including around a dozen cops and six journalists. Management of the Hameem Group estimate damage to the factory and machinery at Tk 10 crore (over $1 million).
(Protest footage starts at around 1.02 secs)
Sunday morning, 15th May; workers begin work in the Hameem Group factory but, with still no visible sign of Salman the vanished worker, soon stop and leave the factory. Gathering on the highway at 9am, they again quickly bring out nearby factories; 50,000 workers converge on the street. Fighting begins on the road, workers set afire tires and logs, blocking traffic. Another 100 people are injured, including workers, journalists, pedestrians and two police constables. A hundred teargas shells and 1000 rubber bullets are fired. Hundreds of factories are again closed for the day.
In an attempt to calm the situation Hameem management and police bring a 'Salman' to the factory. But the workers claim "This Salman is not our Salman" and, unconvinced, the unrest continues into the afternoon.
Eventually Hameem management are able to convene a meeting with the workforce where a return to work is agreed. Six arrested workers are released by police and the real Salman is apparently produced to the workers' satisfaction. The police rifle snatched by workers the previous day is recovered, found hidden under a pile of firewood.
Monday morning, Narayanganj, 10 miles south-east of Dhaka; workers protesting the illegal summary sacking of several co-workers agitate stop work at the Sinha Textiles factory. Hundreds of workers barricade the local highway and fight pitched battles with cops for two hours. Several other factories are vandalised.
Tuesday morning, Narayanganj; Sinha Textiles workers find themselves locked out and the factory under "indefinite closure". Though such dismissal without any advance warning is illegal it is a frequent occurrence. At 9am, as hundreds of workers demonstrate and fight cops for an hour, several vehicles are vandalised and a bus is torched.
While fleeing from police baton charges, another young female worker, 22-year-old Sonia, is killed when hit by a bus. 30 people, including 10 cops, are injured.
The 18 month 'truce' as both sides adjusted to the tactics of the new Industrial Police Force is well and truly over. The IPF tactics may even begin to backfire now by provoking a possible escalation; as workers begin to appreciate that their own levels of organisation, co-ordination, tactics and numbers involved must be sufficient to combat the now-greater organisation of the cops.
Whichever of the two main parties are in power, every Bangladeshi parliamentary term of office tends to follow a predictable route, becoming ever more repressive. The present ruling Awami League's term is no different, though now somewhat worse than their recent predecessors, seemingly intent on crippling all organised opposition.
In the past two years there has been a wave of unexplained disappearances of dozens of political opposition figures. They have included local party activists of the Bangladeshi National Party(BNP), some more prominent BNP politicians and some student unionists. So far there only apparently been one disappearance due to activities related to labour struggles. Aminul Islam was a former garment worker; elected by workmates as a convenor on the Workers Representation and Welfare Committee at his workplace (the WRWC being the only form of minimal workforce representation allowed by bosses) he was sacked for his militancy. Helped with his legal case against his former employers by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a group that has argued for higher pay and better working conditions, he later became a union organiser for BCWS. The BCWS was active in the 2010 campaign for a minimum wage - since then its leading activists have suffered harassment, arrest, torture and legal frame-ups. Mr Islam was previously arrested by the security services in 2010 and tortured.
He was last seen alive in April 2012 in the industrial area of Ashulia, outside the BCWS offices, where the premises appeared to be under police surveillance. Receiving a phone call from a worker requesting help, he left home but never arrived at the agreed meeting place. His family filed a missing person report with police. Two days later his tortured body was found dumped by a roadside 100 kilometres away. The local police buried his remains as unclaimed and of unknown identity, but also had pictures of the corpse published in the press. These were seen by his friends and relatives, leading to the body being exhumed and positively identified. Signs of torture were obvious on Aminul Islam's body, with numerous wounds, bruises and broken bones.(3)
Whatever the routine official denials, nobody is under any illusions as to the state security services' role in these murders. While militant workers, rank'n'file labour activists and unionists have suffered harassment, arrest and torture, for the moment, at least, most disappearances continue to be of political activists related to the BNP;
In reply to a question posed by MP Tarana Halim in the Bangladesh parliament on March 14, minister of home affairs, Shahara Khatun, commented that most of the victims of enforced disappearances were affiliated with criminal groups and abducted by their rivals.
http://www.rediff.com/news/special/enforced-disappearances-on-the-rise-in-bangladesh/20120420.htm (our emphasis)
Minister Khatun expresses here either an unintentional or deliberately cynical sense of irony; the opposition BNP's history is every bit as corrupt and murderously repressive as the present Awami League regime - so in that sense his explanation is perfectly accurate.
1) See; http://libcom.org/news/policemans-new-clothes-new-styles-repression-bangladeshi-garment-industry-12012012
2) Recent years have seen an explosion of mobile use in Bangladesh, now ranked 13th in the world for usage; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_mobile_phones_in_use As they have become more affordable for workers no doubt they are being used to co-ordinate factory strikes and protests.
3) For more info on Islam's death; http://www.nl-aid.org/domain/human-rights/bangladesh-dgfi-tortured-to-death-labor-activist-aminul-islam/
Correspondence released by Wikileaks in 2010 revealed that the UK government had been training the para-military Rapid Action Batallion, notorious for its many assassinations; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/21/wikileaks-cables-british-police-bangladesh-death-squad
While international criticism has led to a decline in RAB extra-judicial killings - with victims routinely reported as caught in "crossfire" - the state has merely replaced these with its tactic of disappearances. On the present wave; http://www.rediff.com/news/special/enforced-disappearances-on-the-rise-in-bangladesh/20120420.htm