24 days ago

Dealing with disgruntled workers

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The workers of the country's highest export earning sector, the Readymade Garment (RMG) Industry, have for the last few weeks been holding protest demonstrations to raise their minimum wage. At the 4th meeting of the minimum wage board (formed in April this year) for the RMG sector workers held on October 22, the workers' representative placed the demand for the minimum wage worth Tk20,393. But the industry owners offered Tk10,400. Angered by the amount offered by the owners which was far below what the workers demanded, the workers started agitation. The protest demos which started in Gazipur, then spread to the RMG industrial zones of  Ashulia and Savar.

To pacify the protesting workers, the minimum wage board again met (sixth meeting) on November 7 at its Segunbagicha office where the RMG owners' representative made a revised offer of minimum wage at Tk 12,500.  But the workers at that point were demanding Tk 23,000 as the lowest minimum wage. They refused to work at their factories unless their demand was met.

As it also happened in the past, the workers in some cases went on a rampage on their factory premises, or on the street when law-enforcers intervened resulting in the death of workers (3 dead including a female worker) and many injuries.

This is the recent course of events over the bargaining of revised minimum wage for RMG workers. But why should such bargaining over the demands by workers to raise their wages turn bloody? This is unfortunate. Protest demonstrations including strikes done peacefully over pay raise is a universally accepted right of workers, especially in democracies. The industry owners also know that such workers' agitation are not any criminal activity, but a normal practice recognised by law. But in this part of the world, it appears, any agitation by workers is something abnormal. In fact, the workers get violent at the slightest provocation, while the industry owners, too, get equally nervous and respond often with disproportionate force. But had there been healthy, democratically-run trade unions with elected workers' representatives to do the job of bargaining for the worker with the industry owners, the workers would not behave so wildly. In that case, the ugly and bloody encounters between workers and law-enforcers, which is now often the case, would not have taken place. But now that the RMG workers and owners are locked in a conflict over fixing the minimum wage, it does not bode well for the industry itself.

One needs to take into consideration the fact that it is not a very normal time when the garment workers have chosen to launch their movement for wage hike. In fact, one need not be a garment worker to understand what is driving low income people over the edge. Ask any average low or middle income person about how s/he is doing with her or his earning. Needless to say, in the face of unprecedented rise in the cost of living, an overwhelming majority of the population cannot make both ends meet with incomes they earn. Worse, the high inflation has further eroded their real incomes. As in most cases, unlike the workers in a factory, they have no scope to give vent to their resentments over their condition of life in an organised manner. So, it is nothing surprising that with their back to the wall, the RMG workers have come out in a body asking for an increase in their minimum wage. Unfortunately, things have turned for the worse. Meanwhile, some 130 garment factories in  Ashulia, Savar and Dhamrai industrial areas have shut down for an indefinite period of time and workers were found returning from the gates of those factories as notices were hanging there announcing  closures. The closures were announced in exercise of the Section 13/1 of the Labour Act. The Labour Act has the implication that if the labourers do not work, they won't get paid. It appears, the stance of the RMG owners has further hardened as they are looking for, what they said, trouble-mongers involved in the violent protests or had gone on a rampage on their factory premises. The police, on the other hand, are also lodging cases against workers who allegedly took part in such violent protests. At the same time, the apex body of the country's garment factories, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has directed its member factories to stop any new recruitment, until the ongoing RMG workers' unrest ends. Understandably, the message is being made clear to the workers that either they accept the owners' last offer of Tk 12,500 as the minimum wage or lose their jobs. The striking workers will not get any pay for the days they would remain absent from work.

No doubt it is a difficult time. With increasing production costs due to high price of imported raw materials, rising fuel price, power tariff, transport cost, etc. at home and falling demand for apparel products in the Western markets leading to the overseas buyers' reluctance to offer reasonable price, the local garment exporters are in a double whammy.

At the best they are selling their products abroad at a low profit margin, or selling those at a loss, at the worst. Obviously, the garment owners have their problems. But there is a qualitative difference between the problems faced by the workers and the factory owners. The owners' problem is one of less profit or even loss. But for the workers, it is existential. One cannot expect required service from a worker who cannot make ends meet with the pay she/he gets from the employer. So, a harsh approach to silence the garment workers' demand for higher minimum wage will not work in the long run. The risk of future eruption of violence in the apparel sector will remain. A mass of disgruntled workers is a ticking bomb waiting to go off at an inopportune moment.


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