Firebrand Politician Stirs Up Labor Dispute in Bangladesh

Garment Industry Worries About Resumption of Violence

DHAKA, Bangladesh—A firebrand government minister, not one to shy away from a fight or a strike, has taken up the cause of Bangladesh’s overworked and underpaid factory workers, unnerving the troubled garment industry as it struggles to recover from days of violent protests.

Dozens of factories were vandalized and at least 85 people injured after workers demanding higher wages began a new wave of protests last weekend. The demonstrations seemed to ebb Wednesday, but many businesses remained closed, fearing a resumption of violence.

Garment workers at a rally in Dhaka on Saturday wear badges featuring government minister Shahjahan Khan, who promised them higher wages.
Garment workers at a rally in Dhaka on Saturday wear badges featuring government minister Shahjahan Khan, who promised them higher wages. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The protests have been led in part by the Garment Workers Coordination Council, a group started six months ago by Shahjahan Khan, the country’s outspoken shipping minister, who has a knack for finding issues that resonate with voters.

On Wednesday in the Gazipur industrial area, roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Dhaka, Kamal Uddin supervised a cleanup of his factories, parts of which were set on fire Monday by rampaging workers.

He and other factory owners blamed Mr. Khan for stirring up trouble by promising garment workers at a rally in Dhaka on Saturday that their monthly minimum wage would be doubled to 8,000 takas, or around $100.

“It was irresponsible of Shahjahan Khan to promise an unrealistic pay hike,” Mr. Uddin said. “The workers got their hopes up and now we are paying the price.”

Mr. Khan said that he has never called for violence and that he is just trying to help improve the lives of the millions of workers in the country’s $20 billion apparel industry. “I am calling on the workers to return to work immediately,” he said in an interview.

Critics say he is trying to ride the rising wave of labor discontent as a potential vote bank ahead of national elections due in January in which his party, the Awami League, hopes to retain power. Mr. Khan says the aim of his new garment workers’ group isn’t political, although he called on workers to support his party at Saturday’s rally.

While the stocky Mr. Khan promotes himself as a labor leader, his family also owns a transportation company that operates a fleet of buses.

He also heads the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation, an umbrella group with an estimated membership of two million. Mr. Khan used support from the federation to win his first seat in Parliament in 1996, and quickly climbed the ranks of power. He became the country’s shipping minister in 2009, but continues to head the labor groups.

Mr. Khan’s critics accuse him of using his position and his labor group to promote his own economic and political interests.

While sitting on the National Road Safety Council, for example, he opposed stricter rules for issuing driver’s licenses to bus drivers, despite a public uproar in 2011 after a prominent film director was killed in a road accident involving an improperly licensed bus driver. Mr. Khan argued at the time that Bangladesh couldn’t be held to Western standards.

“A minister should act in the public interest and not in the narrow interests of (one) group,” said Syed Abul Maksud, a road-safety campaigner.

Mr. Khan’s transport workers’ organization also has used huge strikes to pressure the government to accept the demands of both industry and labor.

A parliamentary committee found in 2012 that his organization collected at least 500 million takas ($6.3 million) a year in illegal tolls at checkpoints on the road network, ostensibly to raise funds for workers’ welfare.

The committee said that the tolls had increased transport costs between 40% and 200%.

But appearing before the committee in February 2012, Mr. Khan argued in favor of the toll collection and—amid warning strikes—the government eventually backed off any action.

“He wears many hats and there is definitely a conflict of interest,” said Ahsan Mansur,director of the Policy Research Institute, a Dhaka-based think tank.

Mr. Khan denies that he has abused his position for economic gain or backed detrimental policies.

But even some labor activists said they were unhappy about Mr. Khan’s new interest in the garment sector. “The less politics we have in this sector, the better,” said one labor leader who asked not to be identified.

But in the rough and tumble world of Bangladeshi politics, Mr. Khan has repeatedly shown that he is a force to be reckoned with.

During a live television talk show in October, he even threatened to gouge out the eyes of another panelist who had disagreed with him. “Shut your mouth!” he yelled. “Shahjahan Khan doesn’t give a damn about anyone!”

Source: The Wall Street Journal