DHAKA (AFP) — At least 25,000 textile workers defied a ban on protests in emergency-ruled Bangladesh on Saturday to demand back-pay and bonuses in one of the country's biggest industrial zones, police said.
The workers walked off the job in the Tejgaon Industrial Area in Dhaka and held protests in the streets, forcing the shutdown of most factories in the area, assistant police commissioner Moshiur Rahman said.
Police used batons to break up protests after demonstrators smashed the windows of several factories, Rahman said, adding army personnel and the elite Rapid Action Battalion were deployed.
"The protests have calmed down," Rahman said. "We have told factory owners to sit with the workers to settle the wage dispute. Otherwise, it may flare up again."
Police reported no injuries from their actions to disperse the protesters.
But at least 50 people, including four policemen, were injured when protesters using sticks and stones clashed with factory workers who refused to join the protests, the private UNB news agency said.
Police said a bus was torched by workers after it hit three protesters.
The military-backed government has banned all kinds of protests and rallies and has said it will not tolerate any unrest in the important textile sector, which is crucial to impoverished Bangladesh's export earnings.
Tejgaon is home to some of Bangladesh's top garment factories.
Garments are Bangladesh's biggest export earners with sales abroad fetching more than nine billion dollars, or three-quarters of the country's total export earnings, in the last fiscal year.
But the industry has been hit by a series of protests over low wages and poor working conditions. Sixteen factories were torched and hundreds vandalised last year in the country's worst ever labour unrest.
The protests came to a halt late in 2006 when the government, unions and the employers agreed to a 25-dollar monthly minimum wage.
The government has issued several warnings to the factories to implement the minimum wage but according to the unions just 20 percent have done so.
"We have conducted surveys in the country's main industrial zones and found that only 20 per cent of the country's some 4000 factories have implemented the minimum wages," Moshrefa Mishu, president of Garment Workers Unity Forum, said.
In the latest warning, the government has said it will take legal action against factories that fail to implement the minimum wage by September 30.
The deadline has so far been deferred at least twice.
"The situation is very tense and is deteriorating every day. In addition, recent increases in food and commodity prices have even made the minimum wage meaningless," said Mishu, who led last year's labour protests.
But the president of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Anwarul Alam Parvez, said that "97 per cent of our factories have implemented the minimum wages."
He called the demands of the workers "illegitimate and unacceptable."
Bangladesh has been under emergency rule since January 11 after elections were cancelled over vote-rigging allegations.
The army-backed government has promised to reinstate democracy by holding fresh elections in late 2008 after cleaning up the nation's corrupt politics.
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