In a clear case of union busting, 13 union leaders face up to life imprisonment on false extortion charges, all for demanding arrears for readymade garment (RMG) workers.
In April 2021, Versatile Attire Ltd, a garment factory employing 200 workers relocated from Savar to Ashulia, effectively rendering the 200 workers jobless. According to Bangladesh labour law, if a factory relocates within 40km of its original location, the workers must either agree to work at the new location or “voluntarily” resign. Due to management’s consistently late payment of wages, and constant threats of being sacked for failing to meet unreasonably high targets, all 200 workers had no choice but to resign.
To make matters worse, the Versatile Attire factory boss, Mostafa Imrul Kayes, absconded without paying wages due for the months of February and March. All of this during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, amidst another deadly wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as workers are struggling to recover from the economic crisis that ravaged the RMG sector.
On 31 March, workers and Textile Garment Workers Federation (TGWF) had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with AGM Abdullah Al Mamun and DGM Johirul Haydar Chudhury, agreeing that wages for February and March would be paid on 8 April and 22 April, respectively, and that the mandatory compensation of 14 days basic wages for workers employed more than 5 years as per Bangladesh labour law would be paid on 6 May.
However, the management failed to pay on the agreed dates, promising to pay the total wages on 2 May. Again, on 2 May, the management failed to pay, and industrial police barred workers from entering the new factory to face the management. On 3 May, TGWF took the case to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) – the employers’ association and power center of factory bosses supposedly dedicated to industrial peace – but the BGMEA failed to negotiate with the management.
On 4 May, 200 workers and union leaders assembled at the new factory location in Ashulia, and again were barred from entering. The management then assured that they would pay the workers on 9 May – but only for one month’s worth of wages! The union and workers refused and eventually both parties agreed to the amount of 80% of the total wages to be paid on 9 May.
However, on 9 May, the management paid all but 24 workers, citing shortage of funds. They insisted that instead the union reps pay the 24 workers using donations provided by the workers as tribute to the union’s efforts (the union does not collect dues and expenses are frequently paid out-of-pocket by union leaders). The union leaders refused to use the workers’ donations to fulfill the employer’s legal obligation to pay the workers their due wages. This was a clear effort on the part of the management to sow seeds of mistrust between the workers and the union, as 24 workers were still denied payment despite the union’s successful negotiations.
The union’s refusal to pay the workers’ wages on behalf of the employer angered the bosses, prompting them to accuse the leaders of being outside agitators and goonda (paid thugs), and call in the industrial police. The police arrested 6 union leaders, who were eventually released on bail on 12 May after the first bail petition was rejected. Now the 6 who were arrested and an additional 7 named in the case filed by the employer are charged with extortion, facing sentences of 5 years to life imprisonment.
Their names are:
MD Sultan, Bangladesh Garment and Tailors Workers Federation
MD Jahidur Rahman Jibon, Bangladesh Readymade Garments Workers Federation
MD Ashiq, Bangladesh Apparel and Readymade Garments Workers Federation
Ratan Hossain, Textile Garment Workers Federation
Sha Alom, Textile Garment Workers Federation
MD Bokul, Bangladesh Garment and Tailors Workers Federation
MD Mamun, Jago Bangladesh Garments Workers Federation
Al Kamran, Swadhin Bangla Garments Workers Federation
Anis, Socialist Garments Workers Front
Monju, Bangladesh Trade Union Center
Jibon Ahmed, Socialist Workers Front
Qamrul, Bangladesh Jatiyo Garments Shrmik Jot
Ismail Hosain Thandu, Bangladesh Garments and Shilpo Shrmik Federation
We believe that the repressive tactics of Versatile Attire Ltd towards union leaders amount to union busting, in violation of international law. Such strategies – threatening legal action and displaying their ability to back these threats – are meant to discourage workers from organising and claiming their rights. These illegal practices are all too common, backed by labour law that is anti-union and anti-worker. Employers can relocate, fire workers, and commit wage theft without repercussions. Until this power imbalance is adequately addressed, workers and trade unions will not be able to claim their rights in a meaningful way.
The ATNC Monitoring Network stands in solidarity with TGWF and RMG workers in their calls for:
- the Home Ministry to drop all charges against the workers and union reps
- the Labour Ministry to ensure Versatile Attire Ltd factory boss pays the remaining 24 workers their due wages
- the Labour Ministry to put a stop to union busting and ensure workers have the right to freedom of association and the right to organize and collective bargaining, in accordance with ILO CO87 and C098, which are ratified by the Bangladesh Government
Labour Education Foundation, Pakistan
LIPS Sedane Labour Resource Centre, Indonesia
Globalization Monitor, Hong Kong
Solidar Suisse, Switzerland
Center for Workers Education, India
Korean House for International Solidarity (KHIS), Korea
FSBKU Union, Indonesia
FSRP Union, Indonesia
GSBI Tangerang Raya Union, Indonesia
Worker’s Initiative – Kolkata, India