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Clash at KEPZ raises a number of unpleasant questions

THE killing of a woman worker during a clash between workers and the police inside the Korean Export Processing Zone in Chittagong at midday Thursday provides a poignant pointer to the simmering discontent in the export-oriented apparel industry. According to a report published in New Age on Friday, the trouble began over an alleged spat between workers and officials of Karnaphuli Sports Wear Factory centring ‘inadequate transport allowance’ in the new pay scale. Workers claim that they approached the management for redress to their complaints over the matter but the officials not only were rude to them but also called in the police at one stage. The deputy commissioner of the Chittagong Metropolitan Police was, however, quoted in the report as suggesting that the law enforcers had tried to bring the situation ‘peacefully’ but ‘in vain’. He also claimed that the workers had set fire to empty boxes near the factory and attacked the police, prompting the latter to resort to lobbying teargas shells and firing rubber bullets. Beside the death of the woman worker, 16 people, including three policemen, were injured in the clash.
The incident gives rise to a number of unpleasant questions. First and foremost, it points to an increasing tendency of the law enforcers to employ brute force when it comes to quelling labour unrest. It is not the first time that an apparel worker was killed amidst police action, in Chittagong or anywhere else in the country. As such, the CMP official’s claim that the law enforcers initially sought to cope with the situation ‘peacefully’ sounds too good to be true. Moreover, as the workers claim, the police appeared on the scene in response to a call by the factory management, which could only reinforce the perception that the law enforcers were actually there to do the factory owner’s bidding. Most importantly, there does not seem to be any compulsion on the metropolitan office to initiate any official inquiry into the incident so as to determine the cause and content of the turmoil, as if the death of a worker does not warrant such an action.
Meanwhile, the factory management must shoulder the responsibility for the incident. It needs to find out how and why the workers’ unhappiness over transport allowance snowballed into a violent clash, especially when the workers have complained that some officials behaved rudely with them. The management needs to realise as well that the death of a colleague in the skirmishes is likely to incense the workers further and lead to a fresh flare-up. Hence, it needs to engage the workers in an effective dialogue and resolve the problem — the sooner the better. At the same time, the family of the deceased workers and those injured in the clash must be compensated.
Ultimately, however, the incident needs to be treated as a wake-up call for the government. The clash at the export processing zone indicates that there may still be considerable dissatisfaction among workers with the latest revision of the pay scale. It is, therefore, imperative for the government to keep its communication channel open for the workers so that they do not feel ignored and thus resort to violent agitation to make their voices heard.

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