Bangladesh police Sunday fired rubber bullets and tear gas at tens of thousands of garment workers as they rioted in a key industrial area outside Dhaka, demanding a reduction in working hours.
The workers left their factories and joined the protest, torching a police post and four police vehicles at Narayanganj, 20 kilometres south of the capital, authorities said.
“There were more than 100,000 workers. They were peaceful initially, but suddenly they stormed a police post at Shimrail and set it on fire,” Narayanganj police chief Sheikh Nazmul Alam told AFP.
“We fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the rioters,” he said, adding two policemen were critically injured during the clashes. He could not say whether or how many workers were hurt.
Alam said a rumour over a killing of a worker at a factory at Adamjee Export Processing Zone, where plants sew clothing for leading international chains, sparked the protest, forcing the zone’s scores of factories to draw shutters.
It later became a full-blown riot — the worst since June when hundreds of factories closed their shops for more than a week — as labourers demanded shorter work hours, workplace security and other benefits, he added.
Tens of thousands of workers also blocked a major highway, halting transport movement between Dhaka and the port city of Chittagong for more than four hours.
Bangladesh’s three million garment workers typically work 10-hour shifts and some for up to 16 hours a day for the world’s lowest textile wages, starting at $37 a month.
Adamjee employees were demanding guarantees for a 5:00 pm end to the working day.
The South Asian nation has recently emerged as the world’s second-largest clothes exporter with overseas garment sales topping $19 billion last year, or 80 percent of total national exports.
The sector is the mainstay of the poverty-stricken country’s economy, employing 40 per cent of its industrial workforce.
Protests over low wages and poor work conditions are a recurrent feature of the industry. The government very often employs brute force to quell the unrest in an effort to pacify buyers’ concern over delayed shipment.
Early this month, the Swedish fashion giant H&M, the world’s second-largest clothing chain, urged the government to raise wages at export factories.