DHAKA – Abdus Salam initially thought he was one of those fortunate enough to be able to return to work at the Hollywood Garments factory in Bangladesh’s textile industry hub Ashulia, near the capital city of Dhaka.
The factory, which had been shut for over week after garment workers went on strike and held protests across the country demanding better wages, re-opened its doors on Jan. 18.
After walking through the factory doors, Salam found that the owners had hung up photos of 76 of his co-workers who had all been fired for allegedly participating in the protests.
He was soon summoned upstairs to a manager’s office, where he and several colleagues were told that they too would be losing their jobs.
“The officials took my identity card and told me to leave the factory. I was told that a formal termination letter would be sent to the address of my village home,” Salam told EFE.
He is one of the approximately 5,000 textile workers who have been fired from their jobs for participating in wage protests between Jan. 7-14.
A senior police officer, on condition of anonymity, told EFE that 4,899 employees were terminated between Jan. 15-27 following unrest that left one person dead and at least 20 others injured.
Salam, who denies participating in any of the clashes, said that he and his colleagues went on strike from Jan. 10 after police arrested two factory workers. It was unclear why they were detained, but a trade union leader told EFE that they were suspects in a separate incident.
“Police had taken away our two workers on Jan. 9, so we stopped working from next day. From Jan. 11, our factory was closed.
“I was paid Tk 52,000 ($620) as termination benefit, but it did not help me as I am now jobless. I tried to take a job in another factory, but I have been told that since I participated in protest I cannot be given the job,” he said.
Sarwar Hossain, a trade union organizer in Ashulia, said many workers who did not take part in the protests had been fired from their jobs, and were struggling to find new positions.
“Many sacked workers told us no one is now giving them a job after they have been identified as trouble-maker,” Hossain said. “Some workers had started a job in a new place after they were sacked, but after one or two hours they were told to leave the factory.”
In September, the Bangladeshi government set the total minimum wage for textile workers at 8,000 taka ($95) per month, up from the previous 5,250 taka that was set on Nov. 1, 2014. The new salary structure took effect on Dec. 1.
Protests flared up in January after workers received their December salaries, which fell short of their expectations.
Workers from trade unions have called the new wage structure “inhuman” and “deceptive,” and demanded a minimum monthly wage of 16,000 taka ($190).
Morium Akhter, a vice-president of Bangladesh Textile and Garments Workers League, said the authorities have adopted an intimidation tactic to suppress the workers’ concerns.
“The way workers had expected their salaries to be raised, their expectations were not fulfilled,” Akhter said. “Workers protested, and due to this protest, over 5,000 workers have been sacked and many of them were forced to resign,” she added.
“Criminal cases (have been) filed against some workers,” she said. “They cannot return to home yet, some are still hiding. Those who organized in the past to form a union, they were now being sacked under the pretext of this protest.”
Some textile workers have said they see the new payment structure more as a curse than a blessing, as it has made their long-term future more precarious, with employers now more likely to terminate workers to save costs.
Employees of Creative Sweater in Dhaka’s Mirpur were among the hardest hit, after the owners of the factory laid off its entire staff at the end of October amid uncertainties surrounding the new salary structure.
“We were expecting to get paid on Sept. 14 but the owners suddenly refused to pay us after new pay structure was announced. About a month later, he declared entire factory closed, making 1,200 workers jobless,” said Tania Akter, a finishing operator at the factory.
Siddiqur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, has denied allegations that workers have been fired for participating in the protests, saying that factory owners were entitled to make staffing adjustments if the wage bill was too high.
“If wage bill goes high its normal an owner would offload some workers. We need to see if the legal process was followed… No worker was sacked for (taking part in the) protest,” he said.
The textile sector in Bangladesh has faced intense scrutiny for years because of its poor working conditions, especially after the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in 2013, in which 1,100 workers died and 2,500 were injured.
In the fiscal year 2017-2018, Bangladesh exported textile products worth $30.6 billion, which makes up more than 83 percent of its total exports.