‘I thought about killing my children’: the desperate Bangladesh garment workers fighting for pay

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It was 4.30am when the police charged the hundreds of garment workers sleeping under makeshift shelters and in sleeping bags on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. As blows rained down, the workers fled.

By morning the streets had been cleared of the non-violent protest that more than 700 garment workers had been peacefully staging outside the Dhaka Press Club calling for their unpaid wages as they faced mounting destitution and hunger.

All had been working for A-One Ltd, a huge factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that had pumped out clothing destined for the rails of high street brands in Europe and the US.

In March, as the pandemic hit, the factory closed after foreign buyers pulled their business from the factory and thousands of workers lost their jobs. Last week, amid mounting desperation and despair, hundreds of them came together demanding they be paid months of outstanding wages and pension contributions, without which they say they will be unable to feed their children.

“We were just protesting peacefully against the grave injustice we are facing. We didn’t block roads, we didn’t chant slogans or create chaos” says Ashraf Ali, a former worker at A-One BD Ltd and one of the leaders of the protest. “Yet on Tuesday night a lot of police came with a water cannon truck and baton charged us as we slept. We were shocked by how sudden it was. Around 30 workers were beaten by police. We didn’t deserve this.”

In a statement to the Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh, Sazzadur Rahman, deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan police, said that no meetings or rallies could be held here without prior permission.

“Since they have been here for some days without permission, we repeatedly told them yesterday to leave the place. They left the place this morning. We just did the monitoring,” he said.

Tahmina Azad joined the protest when it began last week. A year ago she was working as a machine operator at A-One (BD) Ltd and supporting her young family. Now she, along with thousands of others, is jobless and destitute.

Tahmina Azad
Tahmina Azad: ‘Once, for two straight days, I had nothing to cook for my children.’ Photograph: Sazzad Hossain/The Guardian

Azad joined the protest because she didn’t know what else to do. She is the sole breadwinner for her family of six and is surviving on the charity of her neighbours. She hasn’t been able to pay her rent for the past 10 months and has racked up huge credit lines at all her local grocery stores.

“Once, for two straight days, I had nothing to cook for my children,” she says. “ I thought of killing myself, I thought of killing my children and setting them free from this torture. When my neighbours got a sense of my dire situation, they fed my children. I’m only alive because of their generosity,” she says.

It is estimated that clothing brands collectively cancelled £13bn in existing orders with overseas suppliers as the pandemic shut retail outlets earlier this year. Azad doesn’t know which brands she was making clothes for. The factory employed more than 5,000 workers with many different foreign buyers coming and going, but in March all the business dried up.

The Arcadia Group, which has collapsed into administration with the loss of 13,000 jobs and a £50m pension deficit, was one of the many companies ordering clothes from the factory. It says that it made its final order to A1-One Ltd in October 2019 and had paid for all its orders in full before the pandemic hit in March.

Yet its demise, and that of other retailers such as Peacocks which have fallen in recent months, is likely to have an immediate and catastrophic knock-on effect for thousands of workers and their families across Bangladesh, says Rubana Huq of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

“We are sitting at the bottom of this supply chain and suppliers have already been pushed to the edge by extremely tight prices and deferred payments,” she says. Before its collapse Arcadia was ordering millions of pounds of clothing from factories in Bangladesh every year. “I feel extremely worried for the affected factories and their workers,” says Huq.

Garment workers camp out in front of the Dhaka Press Club
Garment workers camp out in front of the Dhaka Press Club. Photograph: Sazzad Hossain/The Guardian

Workers like Salma are at the sharp end of the devastation that the pandemic has wreaked on the global fashion industry, and are already in desperate trouble.

“Our factory closed during lockdown and when we came back they told us there was no new order at the moment and sent us home,” she says. “We went back and demanded payment for our previous work. But they closed the factory gate. We couldn’t go in. We haven’t been paid what we are owed since.

“Since then we have been protesting for our wages multiple times. We were beaten by the factory-backed goons, water cannoned by the police, been promised 19 different dates to settle what we are owed. But nothing materialised.”

Some of those taking part in the Dhaka protest
Some of those taking part in the Dhaka protest. Photograph: Sazzad Hossain/The Guardian

Selina Hossain, 38, who earned 12,000 takas (£106) a month before A-One closed, was part of the protest alongside Khan. She hasn’t been able to pay her rent for six months and is facing eviction.

“This garment job is all I have ever had,” she says. “If I get evicted my family will be on the street. I have tried looking for other jobs. But no one was hiring during the pandemic.”

Last week a report by the Worker Rights Consortium, a human rights group, found that the fallout from the pandemic has led to garment workers across the world facing deprivation and widespread food shortages. Interviews with 400 workers from nine countries found that more than 80% were facing hunger amid falling wages and widespread job losses.

Workers say they will continue to protest until they receive their salaries. “We have to continue with our demands,” says Ali. “We’re planning more protests locally. We don’t see any other ways to get the attention of the authority to get a solution.”

“Either open the factory, clear our dues and let’s get back to work,” says Salma Begum, a machine operator who worked at the factory for more than 10 years. “Or give us our salaries and the money we saved in the pension funds, and I want to move on with my life. We are behind on paying rent, we are buying groceries on credit, we’re rationing our meals. I can’t go home empty-handed.”

Some names have been changed


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