Thursday 19 August
Bangladeshi trade unionists are in hiding following a brutal police crackdown on garment workers fighting for a living minimum wage.
Unions said that at least 100 workers had been arrested since the strikes last month and 5,000 had been sacked.
Police confirmed they had arrested 20 people, including four union leaders and seven women workers, in the past two weeks alone.
“Most of us are now on the run, living in fear as we are getting threats from the police,” said Garment Workers Unity Forum president Mosherefa Mishu.
Security forces have launched a major offensive on behalf of the owners of textile factories hit by the walkouts.
Their targets are some of the worst-paid workers in the world yet the clothes they make are sold by some of the West’s biggest brands, including Tesco, H&M and Wal-Mart.
Police have mounted nightly rampages through the slums which house the impoverished employees.
“At least 5,000 workers have been sacked for involvement in the protests. Hundreds are just leaving their jobs and going back to their villages,” said Bangladesh Textile Garment Workers Federation president Mahbubur Rahman Ismail.
Unions warn that at least 12,000 workers face prosecution after police scoured images in the media to identify the protesters.
They will face charges of violence, vandalism, arson and looting, with union leaders accused of inciting the workforce.
The dispute has cast light on the plight of garment workers in developing countries and drawn backing from international trade union Workers Uniting.
It has pitted workers paid the 1,662.50 taka (£15.29) monthly minimum wage against the might of greedy factory owners, their backers in the state machinery and thugs serving bosses’ “trade unions.”
The minimum wage had not been raised since 2006, but after initial protests the government begrudgingly pledged to put it up to 3,000 taka (£27.59) a month on November 1.
However many workers in the three-million-strong sector held out for their full claim of an immediate 5,000 taka (£45.99) minimum, sparking street confrontations.
The outlook for garment workers worsened dramatically in 2005 when an international system of textiles quotas was abolished in favour of cut-throat open competition.