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Bangladeshi garment industry unrest deepens

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The unrest in Bangladesh garment industry deepened further as foreign investors announced Sunday they have shut their units as fresh violence flared up in the Export Processing Zone (EPZ).

Investors of 92 units in the EPZ, 25 km west of Dhaka, decided to shut down their units following fresh violence of workers and said they will reopen the units until the government gives guarantee of law and order in the area.

They also requested the EPZ authority to declare the EPZ closed indefinitely to cool off the situation.

Chairman of Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Association ( BEPZA) Kihak Sung said some workers, who are mainly rent seekers, from outside the park fuelled series of attacks on the industries of the park. The attacks were not the result of discontent among the workers.

But the government requested the investors to keep their units open on the pretext that the ministers for Labor and Commerce would mediate a meeting between agitating workers and investors to resolve the problem.

The association in a letter to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on Saturday said, "If the current state of lawlessness is not controlled immediately, the investors of Savar EPZ will probably be forced to cease its operations and the EPZ will bear permanent and irrevocable damage and not be able to support the economic progress of the workers and the nation."

The letter said the situation at the EPZ worsened dramatically since May 22. About 38 factories were attacked from outside, vandalized and looted, and their officers and management, including foreigners, assaulted.

"Ensuring security of life and property of investors is government's solemn commitment to investors. Sadly, the recent events have proven otherwise," said the letter signed by Kihak Sung.

Thousands of textile workers came out of their workplaces Friday and Saturday in Savar park and Gazipur, about 50 km north of Dhaka over their low wages.

Police and para-military, Bangladesh border guards Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), were called out to the Savar industrial park to quell the agitator workers staged demonstrations.

Police fired tear gas shell to disperse them, in which many workers were hurt.

Last week tens of thousands of textile workers of Bangladesh garment industry, which employed over two million workers, mainly women, demanding better wages torched several factories in Savar and Gazipur, 45 km north of Dhaka and nearby areas and damaged over 200 other factories.

Three workers were killed in the unrest and hundreds of others hurt.

"We are left with only two options now: appealing to the workers through the media not to be misled by any vested interest quarters and appealing to the government to protect our investment and property," Sung said in his letter to the prime minister.

About the wage debate, Sung said the minimum wage for an employee at Savar EPZ was set at 30 U.S. dollars back in 1989. This figure was never updated. The factories annually determine the dollar and Bangladesh currency taka conversion rate. Once a worker is recruited , his or her wage is fixed on the basis of dollar-taka conversion rate of the year of employment, Sung said.

But the wage situation outside the industrial parks are quite different and the owners fix up the wages at their whims, which is very low. Moreover, the employees try to exploit the workers giving cutting down some percentage from the poor wages of the workers, it is alleged.

The Bangladeshi government late on Saturday in a statement announced that three officials of Savar EPZ were sacked for the negligence of duties.

The statement said a committee has been formed with a high government official to probe the incident of workers unrest. The statement said bargaining and movements are usual for realizing demands in any industry between the workers and owners.

"But destruction of mills and factories in the name of workers is not acceptable in anyway," the statement said.

It said the government to this effect has signed an agreement after having talks with leaders of owners and workers and all steps have been taken for its implementation.

The statement said that the government, owners and the workers would work jointly to make Bangladesh garment industry a competitive one in the world market, which fetches about 76 percent of the country's total export earnings.

In the quick heels of the announcement by investors of shutting down their factories, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia sat with senior ministers of her cabinet on Saturday night and discussed in details the ways to cool the situation.

Meanwhile, the apex body of the factory owners Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) leaders in a statement on Saturday might urged the government to immediately resolve the crisis arising out of workers' agitation as it is flaring up.

The BGMEA dubbed the problem as "serious crisis", urged the government to resolve it quickly because what it said the crisis was spreading.


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