Bangladesh factories sack 1,500 workers after protests

Workers and leaders of the Garments Sromik Front protesting against the arrest of their leaders and the sacking of workers from several factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Dec 23, 2016.
Workers and leaders of the Garments Sromik Front protesting against the arrest of their leaders and the sacking of workers from several factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Dec 23, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh garment manufacturers have sacked at least 1,500 workers, police said on Tuesday (Dec 27), after protests over pay led to a week-long shutdown at dozens of factories supplying top Western brands.

Tens of thousands of workers walked out of factories in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia that make clothing for top Western brands like GAP, Zara and H&M earlier this month, prompting concerns over supply during the holiday season.

Police branded the protests illegal and said they had arrested 30 workers including seven union leaders, as well as a television reporter covering the unrest.

On Tuesday, they said factory owners had sacked around 1,500 workers and resumed operations, a week after shutting down to try to contain the protests.

The Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation meanwhile put the number sacked at 3,500 and said dozens of protest organisers had been forced into hiding.

"All the factories have resumed their operations. Some 90 per cent of the workers have joined work," said Mr Nur Nabi, assistant superintendent of police.

"Around 1,500 workers have been sacked by the owners. The owners have filed five cases against the unruly workers," he told AFP.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has rejected the workers' demand for their pay to be trebled from the current minimum monthly wage of 5,300 taka (S$97).

Babul Akhter, head of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, accused the authorities of using a controversial military-era law to shut down the protests.

"They used the Special Powers Act to detain union leaders and workers," he told AFP.

"Up to 3,500 workers have been sacked and 50 leaders have gone into hiding."

The Ashulia police chief said only those involved in violent protest had been arrested.

The protests were the latest blow to the impoverished country's US$30 billion (S$43.4 billion) garment industry, which has proved resilient to a series of attacks on foreigners and religious minorities in Bangladesh.

Garment manufacturing makes up 80 per cent of Bangladesh's exports and a prolonged interruption would have a major impact on the economy.

Bangladesh's 4,500 garment factories have a woeful history of poor pay and conditions for their four million workers, and protests occur frequently.

They gained intensity after the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in which 1,130 people were killed.

The tragedy triggered international outrage, forcing US and European clothing brands to improve deplorable safety conditions at their supplier factories.