Soumitra Kumar Das was a meritorious student of MC College in Sylhet. While studying physics at Jahangirnagar University he decided to work for the rights of the workers. Since then he has been doing this in Savar, Ashulia and Dhamrai areas of Dhaka. Currently he is a regional organiser of Samajtantrik Sramik Front.
But now, focussed and determined, Soumitra lives in fear and panic. Nine cases were filed against him during the readymade garments workers' demonstration in December 2016. Most of the cases were under the special powers act.
Soumitra and eight others were arrested after they were invited for talks. They experienced many horrors before being released on bail several months later. He, however, had to come to Dhaka every month to appear before the court over the last two years. He has been released from eight cases.
Ironically, none of these nine organisers know their faults.
Soumitra said it is not possible to organise rallies or seminars on labour rights in Savar, Dhamrai and Ashulia areas even if you do so in keeping with the laws. It is well-nigh impossible to form a labour union at the factory level. Still the workers sometimes stage demonstrations spontaneously as was seen in the last week.
But the owners and the administration think the labour leaders are responsible for these movements. That is why they threaten them and put Soumitra and his like under mental pressure. The administration asks them to ‘pacify’ the workers but never allow them to organise them when everything is peaceful.
Since 2016, there has been little scope for routine work like forming a trade union in Savar, Ashulia and Dhamrai industrial zone. There are allegations that the authorities sack workers if they are found contacting labour leaders to form a ‘union’. It becomes almost impossible for these workers to get jobs in any other factory. The RMG workers do not think of forming a union for this. There are exceptions, but hardly any. At best 50 out of over 1,000 factories have labour unions in the area. Only four or five of them are active. The authorities introduced a ‘participatory committee’ as an alternative to labour unions but it did not help any side.
As a result, these unorganised workers stage demonstrations intermittently. This had happened in 2016 and again in January 2019. The owners depend on the government administration and their own security forces to quell the situation. But, the globally recognised system to resolve this crisis is tripartite talks among the government, owner and workers. Hindering the growth of this system in Bangladesh is abnormal. This has happened because of the owners’ excessive profit-mongering. This has not been helping build an industry-friendly atmosphere. On the contrary, it can be embarrassing for the government. The law enforcement agencies are being forced to confront the poor workers, which is damaging the image of Bangladesh’s industry sector globally.
Things are comparatively less stringent in the Narayangaj industrial zone. Labour unions are able to work to some extent there. As a result sudden, there is less sudden labour agitation there too. The tannery workers in Savar are also quiet. The labour union can function there. These alternatives suggest normal working of a trade union and systematic leadership of workers help industrial growth.
Garment workers trade union central leader Joly Talukder gave an example of how the industry relations are being hampered institutionally. After completing her graduation in mathematics, Joly started working among the labourers in 2005. She described her experience about negotiations for wages and other demands of the workers of Ashiana garments factory in Rampura of Dhaka.
They applied to the concerned department of the government following all regulations for forming a labour union in the factory in 2017. The department tried to find loopholes in the application for months. They were not allowed to form the union though they applied three times, amending all the mistakes. But the workers interested to form the union were sacked gradually. The factory was eventually shut down.
The workers staged demonstrations against the decision. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the apex body of the apparel sector, got involved in the matter. A case was filed against nine labour leaders on 9 April 2018. They were sent to the jail when they appeared before the court seeking bail. Though the High Court granted them bail, they still have to turn up at court.
Ashiana garments factory is an example of how the situation becomes complex if the normal labour rights as stipulated in the labour law are not allowed to be practiced.
Garments workers leader and photographer Taslima Akhter thinks the same. Taslima got involved in a movement against slum eviction and migrant labourers when she was a student of Dhaka University. Later she become involved in the movement for ensuring rights of readymade garment workers.
She believed and still cherishes the belief that democratisation of the industry will help growth of democracy in the country. But, Taslima said, the situation at a field level has been hampering normal work.
Taslima thinks it is possible to restructure the garments sector using honest labour organisers instead of depending on the administration or any other force. But the opposite is happening. Owners call their pet forces or the administration whenever the workers try to raise their demands.
She also alleged that sometimes they are not allowed to hold media conferences in Dhaka about the demonstrations in Ashulia. Workers of factories in Ashulia, Savar and Dhamrai were not allowed to organise any programmes except observing May Day in the last two or three years. The landlords are forbidden to rent out premises to the organisations. The relatives of organisers also face threats, she said.
People like Joly Talukder, Taslima Akhter and Soumitra Kumar can be an alternative to the damaged image of Bangladesh’s workers situation. These youths, with high education, patriotism and welfare-minded for the workers, could have been a better choice for negotiating with the owners.
The interests of owner and worker are contrary to each other in capitalism. Economic matters, however, are resolvable through tripartite negotiation under the jurisdiction of the labour law and this is happening in other countries.
Bangladesh also had that tradition. This is happening is many sectors of the country too. But, violence, pet labour organisations and false propaganda are the alternatives to Joly, Taslima and Soumitra in the readymade garments sector now. As a result it is not possible for the protesting workers in Savar, Ashulia and Dhamrai to be properly represented. And this does not seem likely in the offing.
Is it possible to create a peaceful industry sector through violence? Is there any such sustainable example in the world?
*Altaf Parvez is a researcher. This article, originally appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza.