The Daily Star RMG-worker survey: Part 3 of 3 What underlies the unrest?

August 23, 2010

According to most workers, strife began inside the factory. Grievances before the wage announcement centred on overtime not being immediately, late payment of regular wages, low tiffin (snack bar) allowances, and docked wages for being even two minutes late a single in a given month.

Now the workers have new complaints: colleagues who mysteriously “disappeared”, the firing of workers for protests, lower salaries in some factories than others, and the use of foul language by mid-level factory staff.

They accuse some factories of using two salary sheets; one real and one falsely inflated. Workers claim they are pressured to quote the inflated salary if a buyer visits the factory.

When a factory’s workers erupt, the owner suspends production and asks the workers to leave, to avoid vandalism. Agitating workers take to the streets and call on their peers to join in, and the unrest can spread.

Workers said their taking to the streets was the only way to attract the attention of policy-makers, who may pressure owners to accept their demands.

“Blocking roads by workers [ … attracts the] attention of the government,” said Mohammad Masum, who works at a garment factory in the Tejgaon area.

Some workers said the government blames a third party’s involvement to hide its failure to understand and address workers’ concerns.

“We are taking to the street on our own,” said Zahedul, a worker at another factory in Ashulia. “It is because of needs.”

DISTRUST OF OWNERS’ CLAIMS
The survey results also show distrust of their bosses’ among workers. Two in three doubt that many factories will be shut down due to the Tk 5,000 minimum wage.

Some 32 percent said that only some small factories with a low capital base may close even at a Tk 5,000 minimum wage.

Nazma Akhter, who works as a worker at a factory in Ahsulia area, said factory owners are merely threatening workers.

“How come they open new units of factory every year if they incur losses?” asked Akhter. “They have a habit of enjoying high profit margins.”

Even shop-floor managers doubt the claims. “Factory owners pay huge amounts of money to production managers, general managers, and other staff,” Akhter said. “This is based on our hard labour; yet we do not get our expected salary.

“Work in the factory advances because we run the wheels.”

But others are less certain that the words of owner are a mere bluff. Jasim Uddin, another worker in Ashulia, said garments owners will charge higher prices to buyers once they pay high salaries.

“Factories will not be shut,” said a female operator named Shilpi who would give only this name. “They are just trying to intimidate us.”

But Rubina Khanam, who works in textile-finishing at a factory in Tejgaon, said small factories might face closures, but not the larger ones.

TO AVOID FUTURE PROTESTS
Workers said an increase in wages would be the simplest way to minimise the risk of future unrest. But many had other suggestions:

-Lower the price of essential commodities;

-Curb rents;

-Enforce labour laws by all factories; and

-Punish misbehaviour by mid-level staff.

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