Hundreds of factories which form the hub of Bangladesh’s garment industry are to close indefinitely after worker unrest sparked by the death of more than 1,100 colleagues, employees announced Monday.
As the search for bodies from last month’s collapse of a factory complex wrapped up, the textile industry’s main trade body said all operations at the nearby Ashulia industrial zone on the outskirts of Dhaka were being suspended until further notice.
Shahidullah Azim, of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said the decision was made “to ensure the security of our factories”.
Local police chief Badrul Alam told AFP workers in 80 percent of the factories had walked out earlier in the day to demand an increase in salaries as well as the execution of the owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza complex in the town of Savar.
Most of Bangladesh’s top garment factories are based at Ashulia and there has been “virtually no work” there since the April 24 Rana Plaza tragedy, Azim said.
Tensions in Ashulia had been further inflamed by the discovery of a dead female garment worker on Sunday. Police said they suspect that the death was a suicide sparked by a “love affair”.
Ashulia is home to around 500 factories which make clothing for a string of major Western retailers including Walmart, H&M, Tesco and Carrefour.
News of the indefinite closure represents yet another body blow to the industry, which has pleaded with Western retailers not to pull out of Bangladesh and promised to come up with a credible safety framework.
Swedish fashion giant H&M said Monday it was among the companies that would sign an agreement drafted by global unions to improve safety in the Bangladeshi textile factories it uses.
The collapse of the nine-storey Rana Plaza, which housed five separate garment factories, was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladeshi history and the latest in a long line of deadly tragedies to blight the textile industry.
A fire at a garment factory in Dhaka last November killed 111 workers and a blaze at another plant killed eight people last week.
Bangladesh’s army announced Monday that it was wrapping up its search for bodies at Savar, saying it now believed a total of 1,127 people were killed.
The army general in charge of the marathon recovery effort said that he was now handing over operational control to civilian administrators and expected his troops to be back in their barracks by Tuesday afternoon.
“The army’s recovery operation is almost over,” Brigadier General Siddiqul Alam told AFP.
“We don’t think there are any more bodies in the rubble.”
Many of the three million employed in the industry earn a basic 40 dollars a month, a wage condemned as “slave labour” by Pope Francis.
Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi micro-loan pioneer who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, on Monday urged manufacturers and Western retailers to ensure that garment workers are paid a living wage.
“We don’t want to make Bangladesh a country of slaves. We want to make it a country of modern women. We want to make sure that they get rightful salaries from the world,” he said in Dhaka.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel maker and the $20 billion industry accounted for up to 80 percent of annual exports last year.
Some activists have said that wages are kept low as trade unions have been hamstrung by government restrictions.
However the Bangladeshi government on Monday approved changes in the labour laws that would make it easier for trade unions to organise themselves.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet “approved some amendments to the labour laws that removed the barriers”, cabinet secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told AFP.
The government’s chief factory inspector Habibul Islam also told AFP his department filed cases against 161 garment factories in the Dhaka region and 16 in the city of Chittagong after they failed to ensure safety measures.
“We first issued notices against them to fix their safety related problems at their plants. Then we filed cases against them under the country’s labour laws after they failed to respond to the our notices,” Islam said.
The factory owners face a maximum three months in jail if they’re found guilty, he said.
Many of the criminal notices predate the Rana Plaza disaster and previous government crackdowns have resulted in few actual prosecutions.