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Workers Struggles: Asia, Australia and the Pacific

Asia

Police fire on striking Bangladeshi garment workers

Bangladeshi paramilitary forces and police fired on demonstrating apparel workers on May 22 and 23, killing at least two and injuring hundreds more. One of those killed was 25-year-old Rana from the Savar export-processing zone. Around 31 workers were arrested.

The incident occurred when apparel workers from the Universe Knitting Factory in the Savar zone struck for an 11-point log of claims, which included an immediate pay rise, a guaranteed basic wage instead of piece rates, payment of wage arrears, overtime rates, and an end to employer harassment. The strike spread rapidly drawing in workers from Savar, Dhaka and surrounding areas, such as Shewrapara, Mirpur, Ksfrul, Tejgaon.

Around 7,000 police and army personnel fired live ammunition, baton charged and used tear gas against the workers who had erected roadblocks. In the ongoing clashes around 500 vehicles and 300 factories were damaged.

On May 23 defiant strikers rallied at Ashulia in Savar demanding jailed workers be released and charges dropped against six of their colleagues, including Mosharefa Mishu, a Garments Workers Front official. Most garment factories in Dhaka and surrounding areas remained closed for a third consecutive day on May 24.

Around 10,000 armed forces, including 30 platoons of Bangladesh Rifles, 800 Rapid Action Battalion members, riot police and additional police have been deployed in Dhaka.

Indian tea-chest loaders strike for higher wages

An indefinite strike by transport company workers on May 11 in Coonoor, in the Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris Hill district is continuing. The workers—who load and unload tea chests—are demanding an increase in their loading rate from 55 to 125 rupees ($US2.7) per tonne.

Their work contract expires on May 30 but negotiations with transport companies have failed to produce a satisfactory outcome. According to Coonoor warehousing companies, the strike has held up tea worth 100 million rupees. The strikers are members of the Tea Chest Lifters’ Association.

Indian beedi workers demand allowance arrears

On May 16, beedi workers rallied in Mangalore, Karnataka, to demand payment of three years’ outstanding Dearness Allowances. Beedi companies had promised to increase the allowance over four years ago but reneged on the commitment. Beedi are cheap cigarettes.

Speakers at the rally accused the Karnataka state government of siding with the companies to deny workers pay increases and improved benefits. Companies and the government have ignored Institute of Social Economic Change recommendations for improved conditions and wages for beedi workers.

In a separate dispute, Mysore Paper Mill workers in Bhadravati, Karnataka, held a sit-down protest outside the plant on May 15 demanding job permanency. The company has ignored a recommendation from the state government’s Department of Administrative and Personnel Reforms that the 52 workers employed two years ago on a temporary basis be made permanent.

Sri Lankan rubber factory workers demand salary rise

Hundreds of Elastomeric Technologies employees in Bokundara, 15 kilometres from Colombo, have begun a campaign for a 12-point log of claims. Their demands include a 2,500-rupee ($US 25) monthly salary rise along with increases in the overnight shift allowance, the annual medical assistance, meal allowances and provision of a 100,000-rupee housing loan.

Employees wore black ribbons to work after gathering at the factory gate on May 18 to distribute leaflets. They are threatening an indefinite strike if their demands are not met.

Negotiations involving the Labor Commissioner, management and the unions have been in progress since last November. The company claims it cannot meet the workers’ demands because of higher rubber prices, devaluation of the rupee and rising fuel prices. Employees have pointed out, however, that the company lifted its net profit to 442 million rupees ($US4.4 million) in 2004.

Elastomeric Technologies, which is 84 percent owned by the Swedish company, manufactures various rubber items. The company owns another factory in the Horana industrial zone about 35 kilometres from Colombo.

Sri Lankan electricity workers picket against privatisation

Sri Lankan power workers picketed the Ceylon Electricity Board headquarters in central Colombo on May 23 in protest against the Electricity Reform Bill. The bill was formulated in 2002 by the previous United National Front government in line with IMF dictates. It proposes to break up the state-owned power corporation into eight separate companies and then privatised.

The Ceylon Electricity Employees Union threatened a total blackout from May 23 if Sri Lanka’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance government introduces the bill for debate at the parliamentary session on that day.

The picket was called off after the government announced that it would refer the bill to a “parliamentary consultative committee”. Workers remain suspicious that this is just a delaying tactic and the bill will be brought forward at a later date.

In a separate dispute, port workers picketed near one of the main port gates in Colombo on May 22 for several demands. These include an immediate salary increase, a cost of living allowance rise and a 25,500-rupee ($US250) increase in medical assistance.

Australia and the Pacific

Firefighters impose overtime bans

Firefighters in Western Australia voted this week to reject a state Labor government pay offer and to impose overtime restrictions at fire stations across the state. The government offered a 9.5 percent pay increase over two years. Firefighters want twice that amount plus increased allowances and better working conditions.

United Firefighters Union members voted to limit overtime to only one hour daily. This could see the closure of some fire stations and the decommissioning of equipment. Some of the firemen have been working up to 25 hours overtime a week because of staff shortages.

Australian nurses protest lack of consultation

New South Wales Nurses Association members at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital held a two-hour stop-work meeting on May 23 and marched to a rally at the St Leonard’s rail station square.

They are protesting a Central Coast Area Health Service decision to exclude nurses from any consultation on hospital budgeting, staffing and other issues. The nurses discussed possible strike action if the decision is not reversed.

New Zealand aged care workers protest over pay

Over 100 aged-care workers rallied outside the New Zealand parliament in Wellington on May 23 over an inadequate funding increase to the aged-care sector in the Labour government’s recent budget.

A Nurses’ Organisation spokesperson said the new funding amounted to an extra $NZ17 million per year and even if this went to wages it would only give an extra 51 cents to care-givers who receive an average $10.85 per hour. This contradicts recent government promises that aged-care workers would receive “significant” pay increases.

Private aged-care providers claim they cannot lift wages without an increase in government subsidies. Shares for Ryman Healthcare, one of the country’s largest retirement village operators, however, rose to a record $7.35, after it announced an “exceptional” 49 percent increase in full-year net profit to $35.1 million. The company’s share price has more than doubled in the past 12 months.

Striking PNG teachers reject secret union deal

At least 18,000 of the 37,000 teachers who walked off the job from May 9 in a nationwide protest over outstanding wages and allowances are continuing to defy a union order to return to work.

On May 22, the PNG Teachers Association (PNGTA) leadership signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the government. The PNGTA did not consult it members or regional representatives before signing the deal.

While the government agreed to initiate procedures to pay outstanding wages and establish a bipartisan taskforce to investigate other grievances, the MOU directed teachers back to work immediately. Thousands of teachers rejected the agreement and called for the resignation of PNGTA national president Tommy Hecko.

Strike coordinator Ben Yalua denounced the union leadership and said he knew nothing about the deal until he read it in the press. Momase regional union secretary Arnold Kondil, representing 6,000 teachers, said: “We want to see something real and not just a MOU. We will resume duties only when we see the payments in our pay packets.”

The teachers want back payment of a 4 percent wage increase officially agreed in 2004, computer payroll discrepancies fixed and housing allowances increase from 7 to 200 kina ($US2.30).

Fiji mine workers reject redundancy offer

The Mine Workers Union of Fiji (FMWU) and the Vatukoula Staff Association have rejected redundancy packages offered by Emperor Gold Mine (EGM) management to 30 administrative workers without first consulting with the unions.

Both unions signed a memorandum of understanding on April 28 with mine management and the government agreeing to a mine restructure and the loss of 300 jobs. EGM promised to negotiate a redundancy package with the unions before sackings commenced.

EGM’s redundancy package is four weeks basic pay and two weeks for every year of service. The unions have submitted a counter claim for one-year base pay and three weeks for each year of service plus a $700 dollar ($US411) re-location allowance. FMWU General Secretary Satish Chandra said that if management failed to accept the proposal he would register a notice of dispute.

New Caledonia broadcaster’s strike enters third month

A strike at New Caledonia’s broadcaster RFO this week entered its third month. Members of the USTKE union struck on March 25 demanding the reinstatement of technician Rock Haocas. Haocas was dismissed for misconduct after staging a picket during a 100-day strike in 2004.

The union said it would compromise and end the strike if Haocas was reemployed at another RFO station, either in Tahiti or France.

Tonga public servants reject redundancy offer

Tonga Public Service Association (PSA) members have rejected a redundancy package offered to 400 public servants as part of government cost-cutting to slash 1,000 jobs.

PSA interim secretary Mele Amanaki said the current redundancy package, a year’s salary and entitlements, is limited to those who have served 15 years or more in the civil service and should be expanded to cover a wider group of workers. Most of those volunteering for redundancy are nearing retirement and the government is unlikely to reach its target of 1,000.