The minister made the comment while addressing a dialogue on “Recent Wage Debates in the RMG Sector: What is it All About?” organized by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in the capital on Saturday
Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi yesterday asked the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) not to include innocent apparel workers in false cases over the recent worker unrest in the sector.
The minister made the call while addressing a dialogue on “Recent Wage Debates in the RMG Sector: What is it All About?” organized by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in the capital on Saturday, presided by CPD Chairman Rehman Sobhan.
The dialogue broadly discussed various aspects of the new wage structure for the country’s apparel sector, which ignited worker unrest due to some issues such as discrepancy in pay grades and not considering increments when setting the new wages.
Participating trade union leaders made allegations against the police of filing false cases against many workers during the recent unrest, further harassing the workers.
“Before the implementation of the new wage structure, there were rumors among the garment workers that their basic wage had been reduced. In a true sense, the basic pay has effectively gone down due to an increase in house rent,” said Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.
The owners intentionally discontinued the 5% annual increment of the workers, hence the workers staged demonstrations, he also said.
Based on the recent unrest, over 30 cases have been filed so far with different police stations against more than 5,500 workers. Factory owners have also terminated workers over the issue, claimed Babul.
Trade union leaders also suggested the BGMEA should form a small committee with representatives from the trade unions and review these cases.
If the committee finds involvement of workers in instigating violence during the unrest, they will be tried, they remarked, adding that innocent workers should be allowed to return to work in their respective factories.
“As a minister, I would like to continue the dialogue with trade unions and focus on resolving the recent problems regarding the new wage structure,” said Tipu Munshi.
Suggesting a 10-member committee with equal representation from owners and workers, the minister said they can regularly discuss RMG-related issues and how to resolve them.
"We have to take this dialogue ahead and pay heed to what the workers say. They must not be terminated from work without any valid reason. It is unacceptable and unethical," he also said.
Pointing at the BGMEA president, he instructed him to look into the issues properly.
“It is not acceptable that an owner will unlawfully terminate a worker from their factory.”
Similarly, any kind of anarchy and vandalism by workers over any issue would not be acceptable, minister Tipu Munshi added.
BGMEA president Siddiqur Rahman denied the allegations of worker harassment and cases filed against the workers, though he said that cases would be filed if workers were found guilty of vandalism and destroying factory property.
CPD stresses focus on proper implementation
CPD, a leading think tank, has urged apparel stakeholders to focus on the effective implementation of the new wage structure, as well as a comprehensive approach on how to address the diverse nature of challenges, such as ignoring institutional processes and minimum compliance requirements.
It also said that the unrest and disputes over the new wage structure were resolved due to the government's prompt response in discussing matters with trade union leaders and relevant stakeholders.
In a presentation titled “Recent Wage Debate in the RMG sector: Ten Lessons Learned”, the CPD made suggestions to avert further debate and untoward incidents.
They talked to 61 RMG workers from three clusters to uncover more about the unrest – from Dhaka, Savar, and Gazipur.
On September 13 last year, the Bangladesh government had set Tk8,000 as the minimum monthly wage. But due to discrepancies found in the wage structure, it sparked unrest among RMG workers in Dhaka, Savar and Gazipur. This forced the government to revise the wage structure recently.
“In the new wage structure, basic salary compared to the gross pay of workers is declining gradually, which will help owners pay less benefits such as overtime, gratuity, and others,” Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of CPD said in his keynote presentation.
On the other hand, the yearly 5% increment on basic, worker skill, and specialization were not taken into consideration while setting the minimum wage, which should be addressed with importance in the future to avert the kind of chaos already seen, said the economist.
However, the think tank also questioned the capacity of worker representative negotiation skills in materializing worker demands.
There was a gap between worker expectations and reality in terms of wages. This is because of lack of negotiation capacity on the part of worker representatives. The representative could negotiate for more with a wage board in place, said Moazzem.
CPD suggested addressing the concerns constructively and forming minimum wages only after taking measures to address the skill-wage mismatch, and raising awareness among workers and management about changes in wage structures, especially in different grades.
It also stressed special awareness-raising initiatives for female workers about their grades, wages and financial issues, devising better communication tools between management and workers, while also paying attention to cash flow management of factories during the period of wage implementation.
On top of that, CPD urged brands and buyers to jointly announce a mechanism for how additional wage costs could be adjusted.
Meanwhile, trade union leaders and CPD both urged the government to take initiatives so that the worker database is not used to blacklist workers in case of terminating their employment, since then they would not be able to seek employment elsewhere.
Workers should not be harassed, while biometric databases should not be in the hands of associations alone and there should be a tripartite committee to monitor it, said the think tank.
In addition, they also called for increasing the role of workers’ participatory committees for better functioning and to increase the role of trade unions by allowing the formation of unions at the factory level.
Unions need to be united for effectiveness
CPD has urged the country's trade unions to get united for the sake of proper representation of workers and consolidate their strong collective bargaining stand.
“You (trade union leaders) look at the gentlemen (apparel exporters) sitting around the table with me. They modestly started small businesses and became industrial giants over the years. BGMEA is becoming a major body and they have established collective strength,” CPD chairman Rehman Sobhan said.
“Now, here are you (trade union leaders), I’ve also seen you as young and youthful, now you’ve got grey hairs too. But you remain divided into 100 different unions, talking in hundred different voices,” observed the noted economist.
Rehman Sobhan said nobody will take them (the union leaders) seriously as representatives of the working class as long they remain divided.
He urged them to unite as a collective bargaining force if they really want to talk workers’ rights on an equal footing with the united force of seasoned business leaders and apparel exporters.
“You (trade union leaders) have become much weaker. In this circumstance, you have to work together, if you seriously want to represent the workers,” he advised.