BANGLADESH: Strike wave greets government changeover

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BY EVA CHENG
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On the eve of the end of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's five-year-old Awami League government, a strike and protest wave is gripping Bangladesh.

After thousands of garment workers rose nationally on July 1 to defend their survival-level wages and conditions, more than 50,000 dock workers in Chittagong — with support from students and a broad cross-section of political parties — struck for 24 hours on July 2.

The dock workers were trying to stop an agreement which would allow Stevedoring Services of America, a private US concern, to build a high-tech container terminal at Patenga, the entry point to the Chittagong port.

The workers feared that the viability of Bangladesh's national seaport and thus, directly and indirectly, the livelihood of millions of workers would be endangered.

Failing to have their demands met, dock workers escalated their action on July 5 and struck for 36 hours, forcing a total halt on all activities at the port — including critical foreign exchange earning export shipments. Such strike actions cost the economy nearly US$65 million a day, employer bodies estimate.

The alliance of 22 trade unions which called the dock stoppages threatened to escalate the strike action to 48 hours or even indefinitely unless their demands are met.

The dock actions were also supported by the Left Front of 11 parties.

The garment sector strike was called after the bosses repeatedly failed to honour previous agreements to grant workers minimal improvements in wages and conditions.

Employers had promised a day off a week, a minimum wage of 1800 taka (A$59.90) a month (from 800 taka, or A$26.60, at present) and a 12-week maternity leave, but had never delivered.

Seven trade union federations jointly backed the strike call, in an impressive united action under the banner of Bangladesh Garment Workers Unity Council. The strike was met by a violent response from thugs believed to be hired by the bosses. Gangs of thugs smashed windows, damaged lifts, cars and other properties in at least 20 garment factories, leading to the arrests of at least 25 workers.

The bosses and the police accused the workers of the violence but the allegation was strongly rejected by Amirul Haque Amin, general secretary of the National Garment Workers Federation, one of the seven constituent bodies of the unity council.

Karmajibi Nari, a women's organisation, pointed out that many workers were also attacked by "hired goons" and that their marches on the day were continuously disrupted by police.

The Patenga terminal dispute has dogged the Awami League government since 1997, when it first revealed the plan.

A leader of the 22-body union alliance, Mahfuzur Rahman Khan, likened the US-owned terminal to the infamous British-owned East India Company in India during colonial times: it would "keep the nation as hostage", he said, and destroy the Chittagong port.

Meanwhile, the political heat is escalating as Sheikh Hasina manoeuvres to delay the end of the current parliament, the handover to a caretaker government and her removal from the prime minister's official residence, delaying tactics the four-party official opposition has condemned as unconstitutional.

Under the country's constitution, a general election must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of parliament and, in the present case, will be on or before October 13.

The official opposition has planned a series of actions to keep the pressure on the Awami League government. A "grand rally" has been launched for July 9 in Dhaka, to be followed by rallies and other protests leading up to the end of parliament on July 13.

Independently, the alliance of 22 dock workers' unions will also soon announce its own public action program.