Dhaka, Jul 25 (bdnews24.com) — The seed of last month's violent RMG protests in Ashulia was arguably sown in late May when a storekeeper was beaten up for using his cell-phone on factory premises.
Salman Shameem Khan, from the neighbouring That's It Packaging was severely beaten for being on the phone at sister company Architect Design Ltd after visiting the factory's medical centre.
Both factories, set close to each other about an hour outside Dhaka, are part of the Ha-Meem group, a large conglomerate owned by FBCCI President Abul Kalam Azad.
Workers say that usually Ha-Meem Group employees get treated at the medical centre on Architect Design premises. Salman had come for treating his tuberculosis.
Refusing to be quoted by their names, workers allege that cell-phone use is strictly prohibited for them while on the factory compound. The executives, however, are allowed the privilege.
At one point, Salman could not take it anymore and slapped the angry executive, who the workers say was a director of the factory.
Soon, police were called in and Salman was turned in to them. He ended up at Ashulia Police Station only to be implicated in a false case, workers also allege.
The incident enraged the workers who were apparently already aggrieved by their low pay and an increasingly hard life. They started to become organised demanding Salman's release, forcing factory authorities to bring the sick man back and produce him in front of them in a couple of days.
Salman had been severely injured, beyond recognition, according to eyewitnesses. This only added to the wild speculations that someone else had been produced instead of Salman, who had actually been killed and fallen victim to another 'forced disappearance'.
According to news reports, the unrest had first broken out at Architect Design. The agitation began spreading on Jun 11 and raged through 300 factories in the area like a wildfire with thousands of poorly-paid workers, many of whom are often manhandled by supervisors, spilling out onto the streets, demonstrating.
Apparently refusing to address and resolve the situation, owners decided to go on a strike of their own. They decided to shut down their factories as the demonstrations and police violence ran into the fifth consecutive day on Jun 16.
Insiders say grievance was already there over meagre payment and disgruntled workers let out their pent-up emotions in waves of protests.
"I can't explain how it turned into such a big agitation, but it all began centring the apparently trivial incident," said Azhar Ali, Production Manager at That's It Packaging.
"You cannot control a mob of 11,000 workers when you have a capacity to handle only 2000. The group (Ha-Meem) failed to control its workers," said Babul Akhter, President of Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.
Workers say they were fed up with tough factory rules. The monthly 'attendance bonus' of Tk 250 is off even if they show up seconds late for a single day.
"Even if it was due to illness and you produce medical certificate to support the claim, you won't get the attendance bonus," said garment worker Hamidul Islam who finds Tk 250 quite a sum.
When a factory has a lot of orders, overtime is mandatory for all the workers. It does not matter whether someone is sick or not, workers told bdnews24.com.
"Otherwise, you miss the annual increment of Tk 300-400," said Asma Khatun, another RMG worker.
Sometimes the labourers lose their jobs for such trivial reasons as failing to meet their daily production requirements. That is what happened to Mahtab and his wife Rokeya Begum, who had come from Gaibandha.
Mahtab's daily production meant checking 1,200 items in eight hours, or 150 per hour or, to be more precise five items every two minutes.
"If you cannot meet the daily rate in eight hours, you won't be allowed to come out of the factory until you complete your work, no matter how long it takes," said Mahtab.
Even the time spent in the toilet is measured and if it takes longer than what the senior officials think reasonable, the worker will certainly be given a dressing down.
"I understand our late attendance may hamper production, but there are ways to deal with it," said Jahanara Begum, who had to quit out of fear after a fire broke out in her factory.
Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association President AKM Salim Osman admitted that mid-level factory management has not matured or developed as have workers and factory owners. "Our mid-level management is not good at all."
Strict factory rules for the sake of what they said maintaining standards do not quite match what the factories provide for workers.
Working conditions are said to fall far short of international standards that the owners are keen about as regards their products. The 9-storey Spectrum Sweater Industries collapsed to kill 61 workers in 2005. The following year a fire at KTS Textiles and Garments factory in Chittagong killed 54. These are just a couple of examples out of dozens.
Allegations have it despite clear neglect of owners, they have been acquitted each time.
"People would have taken to the streets in droves to support us if they knew what happens inside a factory," said Mahtab.
Babul Akhter admitted it was not at all unlikely that someday aggrieved garment workers would fall prey to the machinations of political parties out to secure their narrow self interest.