Fresh troubles are brewing in the garment sector ahead of the Eid-ul Fitr festival with the industrial police identifying 350 factories as vulnerable to violence.
Over the past two weeks 12 factories suspended their operation as protests over wages and arrears spread to key industrial hubs of Ashulia, Tongi and Kanchpur.
Soaring prices of food and commodities ahead of the Ramadan and owners’ failure to spell out clear promise on festival bonus have added fuel to the fire.
Experts said eruption of new unrest after nearly a year of relative calm could peg back export growth at a time when the country faces desperate need to bolster its foreign exchange reserve.
Police said they have stepped up patrol and vigilance in the country’s 4,500 factories as they fear new protests may ensue since many factories are yet to pay the workers’ arrear wages.
“Our intelligence officials have identified 350 garment factories as risky and vulnerable to violence,” Director General of Industrial Police Abdus Salam told the FE.
Small and medium factories which sub-contract for bigger plants mainly make up the list, he said, adding protests could spread to large plants if the owners fail to mollify workers grievances.
Of the total, 120 factories have been bracketed as risky and vulnerable at Ashulia-Savar-Dhamrai industrial hub, home to most of the country’s biggest apparel manufacturers.
At least 100 factories have been found vulnerable in Gazipur district and the rest in Narayanganj, Kanchpur and Chittagong region, senior police officers said, quoting from their findings.
“Our officers have gathered intelligence from workers and other sources. They found that many factories are struggling to clear monthly wages,” said Dhaka zonal head of Industrial Police Golam Rouf Khan.
He said the workers’ nerves are frayed because of soaring prices of food items, bulging festival budget and some owners’ indifference to the workers’ genuine demand.
“It’s an explosive situation out there. We are prepared for the worst,” said another police officer.
Garment is Bangladesh’s key export earner, accounting for US$19 billion of the $22.90 billion merchandise the country shipped in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Export grew a record 42 per cent year-on-year, thanks largely to fewer-than-expected protests and the calm that prevailed in the industrial hubs throughout the year.
The previous year garment exports grew a modest two per cent owing largely to the global recession and one of the worst labour unrest stemming from demand of a new pay-scale.
But with the Eid only a month away and prices spiraling out of control, workers have hit the streets in the Dhaka Export Processing Zone, vandalising factories for arrears and wages.
Among the high profile victims was Grameen Knitwear, one of the best factories in terms of wage record. It was shut down for over a week, after 2,000 workers vandalised the factory and beat up managers.
Police said the workers were demanding three-fold hike in lunch and transport fees in view of galloping food and transport cost and a 10 per cent share in company ownership.
Labour protests have also forced closure of eleven more factories across the country in the past two weeks, police added.
“Grameen’s violence shows that no factory is immune to workers vandalism, especially at this crucial period of the year,” said a police officer at Ashulia.
The latest violence has caught attention of the Prime Minister’s Office, which last week ordered home and commerce ministries to step up effort to avert full-scale labour unrest.
In a letter to the two ministries, the PMO said many apparel factories may not be able to pay wages of July and August and the festival bonus before the Eid, which could spark fresh protests.
Owners have echoed similar fear and they sought law-enforcers’ help to prevent vandalism that gives the sector a bad name to the global buyers.
Worsening the situation, orders from global retailers have dried up due to volatile cotton prices and a fear of double-dip recession in the United States and the 27-nation European Union.
“Orders are down when we needed them most,” said Md. Siddiqur Rahman, vice president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
“It’s an unexpected twist to the situation. We are consulting with banks to find ways to clear workers payments at any cost,” he said.
Labour unions have told the FE that they don’t want vandalism in the industry, but they can’t help the situation if the owners fail to clear wages ahead of Eid.
“A hungry worker is an angry worker. If the owners can’t meet their legal demand, they would obviously protest, especially during this desperate time,” president of Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Unity Forum Mushrefa Mishu said.