The workers, who are affiliated to the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), were demanding that the owners of Ha-Meem Sportswear reopen the factory, which was closed two weeks earlier in a move to break their union.
Several months ago the workers at Ha-Meem, located in Dhaka’s Tejgaon industrial zone, decided to organize a union to combat low wages, abuse by the bosses and unsafe working conditions. When harassment, physical violence, and firings of individual union militants failed to intimidate the workers, the bosses closed the factory without notice.
“This is an illegal closing,” NGWF President Amirul Haque Amin told demonstrators as they gathered in front of the National Press Club, a rallying point for labor and other protests. “We have submitted complaints to the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Trade and the owners to demand that they take the necessary steps to reopen the factory. But they all remain silent.”
“Workers have applied three times to register their trade union with the Labor Ministry,” Amin said. “But they have been rejected repeatedly because of the company’s influence.”
Workers chanted in response: “If our demand isn’t met, we won’t go home.”
Amin was joined on the speakers platform by officials of half a dozen other garment workers federations.
The unionists marched up the road toward the Labor Ministry, broadcasting their chants on a sound system mounted on a rickshaw. Police put up barbed-wire barricades to stop them. A seven-member delegation, led by NGWF General Secretary Safia Parvin, submitted a statement to ministry officials demanding the immediate reopening of the factory. Afterward the marchers, in a defiant but celebratory mood, converged on the union hall for a rally.
Following the rally, union leaders invited Militant reporters to the union hall for an exchange with a dozen workers from Ha-Meem. They readily told their stories, while requesting their actual names and photos not be used to avoid being blacklisted by employers. At least seven workers previously fired by Ha-Meem have been turned down for new jobs in other garment plants.
“Before, we didn’t know what rights we had and what benefits we were entitled to,” said Robi, 26, a sewing machine operator. “But we saw news about other workers who had won benefits through organizing a union, so we decided that’s what we needed. After we organized, the company began paying the benefits. But after six months they started to harass and threaten us more and more, saying we would lose our jobs if we didn’t give up the union.”
Despite the company threats, more workers joined the union and now some 350, nearly 80 percent, are members.
Workers said bosses routinely cheat them out of overtime pay. Robi showed a payslip where 14 hours of overtime were recorded. “But they only paid me for five hours,” he said. After eight hours workers are supposed to be paid double time.
Bosses fail to intimidate workers
“We went to the Human Resources office and told them they had cheated us out of pay,” said Joba, 26, a sewing machine operator. “Two supervisors slapped and kicked us. I was pushed to the floor. Some workers had their scarves ripped off. We protested to the owner. So they set up a meeting between the workers and management, but brought thugs to the meeting to intimidate us.”
The owners then called the police, who arrested 12 workers on false charges of “inciting violence.” They were jailed until the NGWF bailed them out the next day.
“The company tried to scare us into silence,” said Bokul, 25.
The following morning, Oct. 13, workers started work as usual. Then at 2:30 p.m. the bosses called in the cops, who forced the workers out of the plant. Since then it has been closed.
“The bosses have newspapers and TV stations,” Robi said. “They are members of Parliament, they control the government. They don’t answer to anybody.” On a wall at the national union headquarters is a list of some 500 union complaints of illegal firings that remain pending before the labor court.
The Ha-Meem Group owns 26 garment and five laundry plants in Bangladesh, as well as a denim mill, a sweater factory, a newspaper and a TV news channel. The Bangladeshi-owned company exports clothing for international brands such as The Gap, Walmart, J.C. Penney and H&M.
Most Ha-Meem Sportswear workers are in their mid-20s. Like many others in the country’s garment industry, which today has a workforce of about 4 million, the majority moved to the city from rural areas to take their first industrial job.
Workers at this plant were part of the hundreds of thousands who took part in a six-month-long series of strikes and protests in 2013 that forced the government to raise the minimum wage by 77 percent.
Workers respond to deadly disasters
“In the last 22 months, nearly 200 garment unions have been registered,” Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told the Militant Oct. 29. “Before that, maybe one or two a year were registered. This increase was workers’ response to Tazreen and Rana Plaza.”
In November 2012 more than 110 workers were killed in a fire at Tazreen Fashions on the outskirts of Dhaka. Just a few months later, in April 2013, 1,127 garment workers at the Rana Plaza factory complex lost their lives on the altar of profits when a shoddily built eight-story building collapsed. In response, workers poured into the streets by hundreds of thousands protesting the dangerous working conditions.
“These struggles opened up space for workers to raise many issues,” Akter said. “We were able to win an increase in the minimum wage and to press for safer workplaces and union rights. The only way the bosses listen to us is when we go into the streets.”
In the discussion with Militant worker-correspondents at the union hall, Robi remarked, “Workers don’t know enough about other workers’ struggles. We need to reach out to each other.”
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