Hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers fired for protesting low wages
After days of protests by workers and clashes with police, garment factories in Bangladesh reopened on Tuesday. But more than 1,500 workers who participated in the protests have been fired, and dozens of labour leaders have been arrested.
More than 50 factories had been shut down for a week after owners tried to contain the demonstrations. The workers, who make clothes for top North American and European brands, were demanding better wages and safer working conditions.
Taslima Akhter is president of the Garment Workers Solidarity group. She spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Taslima Akhter: [The workers] are afraid to stay at their own home. They're thinking that any time police can come and arrest them. This is the end of the month, and they don't know when they will get their salary, their benefits and other things.
Helen Mann: Why were the workers fired? What reason were they given?
TA: The allegation from the owners was that the workers tried to organize other workers for protests. But we think that to protest is workers', and any citizen's, constitutional right. So they can raise their voices for factory demands and increasing minimum wage. Right now, minimum wage is just $67 [U.S., a month], which is very poor. They can't survive on this wage.
HM: So they're being accused of organizing these kinds of protests?
TA: Yes. In theory, on paper, workers can protest, they can join trade unions. But in practice, when any worker tries to organize, tries to raise their voice for any demand, factory owners usually fire workers.
HM: They're currently paid about $90 Canadian a month. How much money do they want?
TA: They want 10,000 Bangladeshi taka – it is like $128 (U.S.) – for basic, and $205 for gross salary.
HM: Now, the government has used what is called the Special Powers Act to detain some of the workers and the union leaders. How many of them are still in jail, that you know of?
TA: More than 27 workers and worker leaders are arrested and in jail. They're in interrogation now.
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HM: Are you worried for your own safety?
TA: All the time, there is possibility. We are also demanding workers' rights, increasing their minimum wage, safety. Our owner is angry with us, but we think if we want to develop this sector, we have to ensure the workers' side. Without this, we cannot ensure the development of this industry.
HM: Tell us what brand-name clothing stores these factory workers supply. What companies would we know that they're providing clothing for?
TA: There are different kinds of international brands – H&M, Wal-Mart – who give orders in these factories, especially U.S. and European brands. But they don't want to give more pennies for each T-shirt or other products.
HM: Some of those companies say they buy from the manufacturers, so it's up to the manufacturers to increase those salaries. What do you say to that?
TA: They aren't giving more money for products. After Rana Plaza and Tazreen, international brands, buyers and our owners are trying to say they're more conscious about wages, more conscious about safety. But in a practical sense, we see that they're not increasing minimum wage or payment for each product.
HM: You mentioned Rana Plaza. That got worldwide attention three years ago, when the building collapsed and many people died. That accord those companies signed, many companies around the world at least said they would support safety checks and better conditions for the workers. Has anything changed, at least in terms of the condition of those factories since that time?
TA: After Rana Plaza, our government, owners and international buyer brands, they are bound to say that, yes, we are more conscious about worker safety. When we see that all responsible people – the owner of Rana Plaza, the owner of the factories – they haven't been punished yet. So if any factory owners who had this kind of collapse, if they get punishment, then other factory owners would be more conscious. But we are so hopeless that still our government cannot ensure the punishment of the responsible people.
HM: The workers you know, can you share some stories to help us understand what their lives are like, now that they've lost their jobs because of these protests?
TA: Today, I had a few phone calls from workers. They're saying they're very much afraid to stay in their home. They don't know what to do now.
HM: Why are they afraid to go home?
TA: The police are trying to find workers. Ruling parties, local activists, they're also looking for workers who were trying to organize protests inside the factory every night. So there's a panic situation in workers' areas.
HM: Are the fired workers likely to be able to find new jobs?
TA: It's not very easy to get a new job in that particular area. The factory owners, they make a big list, and they hang that list on the factory gate with the workers' photos. And they usually distribute this list of workers, with their photos, to other factories near that factory. So other factory owners also know who those workers are. So it's very tough to get a job in that place again. It's a big problem for workers who are already fired.
HM: This is a big shopping week in Canada, with a lot of sales following the Christmas holiday. A lot of people are going out to stores right now. What would you like them to know about the things they might be considering buying?
TA: To stop buying is not the solution. But I think the international consumer can pressure brands and buyers to pay more for these products. And if they try for a low profit and give some benefits to workers, that would be a good thing, I think.
HM: So you don't think they should boycott those stores?
TA: No, I don't think so.
HM: And that is why? Because workers need the jobs?
TA: Yes. This problem will not be solved by boycotting buying clothes. If we change the working conditions, if we increase the minimum wage, if we ensure safety and trade union rights, then the situation will develop. And it does not depend on workers. It depends on owners, governments, international brands and buyers.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Taslima Akhter.