Bangladesh arrests 21 after rallies

By VIKAS BAJAJ and JULFIKAR ALI MANIK

The police in Bangladesh have arrested three garment industry labor leaders and 18 other people on charges that they organized and participated in violent protests last month. NGOs claim the arrests are a antiunion measure that violates the right to freedom of association (ILO Convention 87).

International advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Rights Forum have criticized the arrests, calling them a tactic for intimidating workers in a powerful industry that supplies Western retailers like Wal-Mart Stores and H&M. The protesters were angry over a recent increase in the minimum wage, calling it inadequate.

The arrests, made over the last several weeks, came after street protests in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, and other hubs of the fast-growing clothing industry. Garment-making, with about three million workers, employs more people than any other industrial segment in Bangladesh, a largely agrarian country of 160 million.

The labor tensions are playing out at a crucial juncture for Bangladesh’s largest export industry, which has been growing as a lower-cost alternative to China. With nearly 70 million people of working age, Bangladesh could probably absorb many more of China’s 20 million garment industry jobs. But there are evidently limits to the Bangladeshi work force’s willingness to undersell their Chinese counterparts.

Last month, a government-appointed wage board raised the minimum wage in Bangladesh’s garment industry to 3,000 taka a month, or $43. That was up from 1,662.50 taka and was the first increase since 2006.

The country’s labor groups had sought an increase to 5,000 taka — or nearly $72. Even that amount would be well below the minimum wages in China’s coastal industrial provinces, which range from $117 to $147 a month.

While some labor groups agreed to accept the 3,000 taka wage, which will take effect in November, several other organizations have not and tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets at the end of July.

Factory owners in Bangladesh assert that a big increase in wages would make them uncompetitive against Vietnam and other rising garment exporters, which have higher labor costs but also have better power grids and other infrastructure and are more efficient producers.

The July protests were much more violent than in the past. Police shot rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds. Protesters set cars ablaze and attacked factories and stores in several Dhaka neighborhoods, including the affluent Gulshan area, which is home to the city’s elite and many foreigners.

The police said they arrested several workers after identifying them in television news film and in newspaper photographs. When questioned about the violence, workers identified several leaders, who were then arrested in the following days, said Molla Nazrul Islam, a deputy police commissioner.

The three leaders arrested were Montu Ghosh, an adviser to Garment Sramik Trade Union Kendra; Babul Akhter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation; and Kalpona Akhter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity. Associates of the arrested labor leaders could not be reached for comment.

“We arrested the leaders of the garment workers on charges of instigating violence and rampage by the factory workers in the garment factories and other business centers,” Mr. Islam said.

But labor and human rights advocacy groups said at least one worker has told his colleagues that he was tortured into giving false evidence against himself and other labor leaders before he escaped from custody. Advocates also said that they were worried about the safety of people arrested in recent days.

Mr. Islam, the police official, denied that the authorities tortured workers and said those arrested were being held for interrogation under court order.

In a statement, several Western labor-rights groups including the International Labor Rights Forum and the Clean Clothes Campaign said the arrests “were part of a strategy by the government of Bangladesh to deal with recent riots among garment workers by scapegoating peaceful worker advocates rather than addressing the true underlying cause of such turmoil: the country’s abysmal working conditions.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has previously expressed sympathy for the workers. Before the recent increase, she said their wages were “not only insufficient but also inhuman.” But she said last month that her government would not tolerate further violent protests.

(The New York Times)

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