Ashulia calm, thanks to armed guards

Prothom Alo English | Update:

Ashulia, the garment hub that produces clothing for sales across the developed world, is again alive with activity after the December protests that affected production.

But, The Guardian newspaper writes, the tension brimming in the air - and the lines of armed guards posted outside some gates - echo the anger that has swept the area.

The newspaper referred to the last month's street demonstration by "tens of thousands of workers" that demanded higher wages and also protested at the firing of their colleagues.

“No factories will give them work now,” one man in his late 20s, was quoted by The Guardian as saying.

“They are in big trouble. One of my friends told me he doesn’t even stay at his own house, afraid the police will harass him,” he was quoted to have said.

“The officials of our factories get pay rises every year,” one of the men was quoted to have spoken up. “But they have all the problems when workers ask for a pay rise.”

According to the Guardian, the pay rise the workers wanted was a tripling of the minimum salary of Taka 5,300 (£54) a month, currently the lowest minimum wage in the world, to Taka 16,000 - still well short of what thinktanks such as the JustJobs Network, which has offices in Washington and New Delhi, consider a living wage.

Industrial unrest close to Christmas was particularly provocative, raising fears among factory owners that lucrative contracts with western brands such Gap, Zara and H&M could go unfilled, said the newspaper.

The police reportedly used rubber bullets to disperse the crowds of protestors and arrested at least 30 people, charging many under 'wartime' laws designed to quash threats to state security, union leaders claim.

Ashulia’s factories finally roared back to life, but the Guardian report said, workers returned to find lists of names posted at the gates. “Around 59 garment factories had temporarily dismissed their workers and asked them for explanations why their contracts should not be terminated,” Babul Akhter, head of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers’ Federation, was quoted to have said.

Quoting the police, the newspaper said about 1,500 workers had been sacked or suspended but, according to Akhter, the actual number “may be as much as 3,000”.

The report said rumours abound that a blacklist of troublemakers is doing the rounds of factories in the area. “I have heard from other workers that the list has also been provided to the law enforcement authorities," a worker was quoted to have said.

The last time minimum wages were increased was 2013, the year that witnessed the Rana Plaza collapse, killing 1,134 people. The disaster brought Bangladesh’s entire garment industry under intense scrutiny but did not slow its strong growth, from $21.5 billion that year to $28 billion in 2015-16, the report pointed out.

Wages also rose in 2006 and 2010, each time preceded by significant protests.

The country's largest lobby of factory owners was said to have insisted that it will not enter into new wage negotiations until 2018.

The Guardian said they have the backing of the country’s labour minister, Mujibul Haque. “There is no scope to increase the wages of ready-made garment workers at this moment,” he reportedly said.

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