Uneasy calm returns to Dhaka garment industry

At least three people died, over 100 were hurt and as many arrested as violence continued for three days in and around the capital.

india Updated: May 25, 2006 13:21 IST

The "conspiracy" theory alluding to an Indian hand in the three-day unrest engulfing Bangladesh's textile industry appeared to play itself out even as the government, the textile manufacturers, garment exporters and economists struggled to bring back normalcy and calculate the extent of losses.

At least three people died, over 100 were injured and as many arrested as violence erupted for three days in and around the capital where the industry, that earns 75 per cent of the foreign exchange for the country, is located.

Estimates about the losses ranged from 200 to 350 factories - mostly small and medium scale units - including many owned by foreign investors.

Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters'Association (BGMEA) vice-president (finance) Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury Arun said nearly 300 factories, including 21 factories in the Savar Export Processing Zone (EPZ), were damaged during the three-day crisis.

The total loss of the garment industry is around four billion taka (nearly $70 million).

Although sections of garment exporters continued to call the violence "planned" and a result of "conspiracy from across the border", media reports blamed both the employers and the workers for the violence and the government for its "ham-handed handling" of the situation.

The English language media either ignored this theory or sought to equate it with the poor working conditions as the cause behind the workers taking to the streets to redress their long-standing demands.

There was universal demand for a judicial inquiry into the entire episode, which has been a recurring phenomenon in an industry that has witnessed unplanned growth over the last two decades.

Finance Minister M Saifur Rahman said the attack on the readymade garment sector was influenced from outside to hamper growth of the industry.

"What happened in the past few days is very frustrating, but I don't believe that it can be carried out by workers," he said.

Commerce Minister M Hafiz Uddin Ahmed, in a meeting with the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers Association (BKMEA), also called the happenings "sabotage".

The BKMEA alleged that the government did not take adequate security measures.

State Minister for Home Lutfozzaman Babar told reporters there were intelligence tips, but the situation went beyond control for a few hours in the period between the intelligence reports and force mobilisation.

Terming the outburst in the garments sector as a subversive act, Babar also said that it was a part of a conspiracy against the country.

But the state minister could not elaborate why the law-enforcers did not take sufficient measures though intelligence agencies had warned about the incident, the Bangladesh Observer newspaper said.

Babar had seen a "conspiracy from across the border" last year as well, when about 500 explosions occurred across the country on August 18.

But when New Delhi protested, it was told that this was not the official viewpoint and the matter was still under inquiry.

With Prime Minister Khaleda Zia away touring the UAE, the situation was being handled by two of her senior ministers, Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Hafez Uddin Ahmed.

According to Bangladesh Today, foreign and domestic buyers remained "helpless bystanders" in the situation.

A representative of Walmart, a leading US buyer of Bangladesh garments now in the city, expressed surprise over the dramatic spread of the incidents.

Anwarul Alam Chowdhury Pervez, Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) director and BGMEA representative to the apex body, said some buyers had already asked their agents in the city to stop inspection visits of factories producing apparels for them.

Thanks to poor working conditions, employer-worker clashes have been recurring in Bangladesh's textile industry. The safety factor has also been grim.

On February 24 this year, more than 50 people were killed and about 100 injured in a fire at a textile mill in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh earns nearly $7 billion a year by exporting textile products, mainly to Europe and the United States.

Exports grew by 20 per cent in the past year, although it was feared earlier that the abolition of quotas in the global textile trade would adversely affect Bangladesh.

Workers often take to the streets with complaints of poor pay and working conditions. Some workers earn as little as $20 a month.

The situation, like most others in Bangladesh, acquired political overtones. Main opposition leader Sheikh Hasina demanded the government's resignation.

On the other hand, the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said it would mobilise the public against "attempts at spreading anarchy".

Former president and Jatiya Party chief Gen (rtd) HM Ershad blamed "vested quarter" behind the violence and mayhem, but did not specify.

Leading economists criticised both the employers and the government for their sheer negligence to overcome the present anarchic situation in the country's readymade garments (RMG) industry.

Bangladesh Economic Association (BEA) president Quazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmed said the current situation in the RMG sector is an explosion of anger that remains unresolved for long.

Debapriya Bhattacharya, executive director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said the nation passed a disastrous day on Tuesday.

He asked the authorities concerned to resolve the crisis immediately by finding out the ills that are deeply rooted in the industry.

First Published: May 25, 2006 13:13 IST