Contemporary Issues

Citizens Protest on Banshkhali Killings

At least seven workers were killed and dozens were shot after police opened fire at SS Power 1 Limited, a Chinese and Bangladeshi owned joint venture company. Workers demonstrating for unpaid wages and other benefits on the coal-fired power plant premises at Baroghona under Gandamara of Banshkhali in Chattogram on April 17.

A press conference held at Gonosasthya Nagar Hospital auditorium at Dhanmondi in Dhaka, was organised to deliver the reaction and findings of an eight member civil society delegation led by Gonosasthya Kendra founder Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury on April 25, which visited the power plant area and talked with the family of affected workers and also with the factory management.

Ganosamhati Andolan chief coordinator Zonayed Saki, who conducted the programme, said that they had found that the police and the thugs of the company were behind the killings.

Transcript of Saki’s talk:

I’ll present a few points in short. On 25th April we arrived in the afternoon in Banshkhali. You all know that on the 17th of April in Banshkhali at the coal fired power plant there was a protest by the workers they had some demands and there was a protest. The police and alongside the police some helmeted thugs opened fire and so far we’ve learnt from mainstream media that seven people have been killed and over a hundred have been injured according to what workers have said through various means. There are about thirty five with bullet injuries in the hospitals. This is what we find out from our own investigations in Chittagong and nearby places in those localities. Talking to those who have been injured and speaking to the families of those who were killed and those injured what we been able to unearth through our visit are things I will place at the table today. Firstly there is a context to this. You probably all know that on the 4th of April 2016 there had been a protest in that area relating to the setting up of this plant. The locals of Gondamara had come out in protest. The protest had taken place because the government and those who are trying to set up the plant, the ones trying to acquire land, had announced that they were going to set up a textile mill and other industries. It was hidden from the locals that there was going to be a coal fired power plant. So this whole thing started with deception and lying. But people found out very quickly that a coal fired power plant was being set up and there was an awareness amongst the people about the harm that could take place through the setting up of a coal fired power plant as there had been a nationwide campaign to stop the power plant in Rampal. The resistance had been led by the National Committee to Protect Oil Gas and Mineral Resources. So the people of Gondamara knew about what had happened to their salt farms, their agricultural land as well as their dwellings and places of worship. Since large swathes of land were going to be taken away, they set up the resistance. In response to that movement the police were brutal and at one stage they fired on the protesters killing four. When even that failed to quell the uprising they then brought in the combined security forces and set up a large camp and through various means of deception and enticement they manage to set up the coal fired power plant which has been going on since then. Again in 2017 the Bangladeshi company S Alam group of which SS power plant, a company named SS corporation is one of their companies, where subsequently there was Chinese investment in the company, and where much work is given to subcontractors, and other forms of investment. These companies then met with the local administration and locals, but then people linked with the government attacked the locals who were protesting, during the meeting, and one local died in that meeting. This is pretty much the background and the local conflict which has been going on for some time. So the entire locality has protested against the setting up of the plant. But those linked with the government and with the company, have not only taken the side of the coal fired power plant, but have made it a regular feature to attack the locals, and kept the conflict alive. Let’s move onto the incident at hand. We found out on the 16th of April or soon afterwards though the conflict had been going on for some time before, the workers had placed several demands the demands were quite everyday demands, in particular, they wanted the backpay for March which they had still not been given, they also placed some new demands since from the 14th of April Ramadan has started so during Ramadan they wanted their working hours to be reduced from 10 to 8 without loss of pay. So they would continue to get paid for 10 hours but get relief for two so they can have Iftar at that time and they wanted to be released early for Jumma prayers on Friday. The toilet situation is horrible. It’s so bad that the workers themselves have insisted that the toilet facilities be improved, so in general they wanted better working conditions and better safety. These demands are very justifiable and everyday demands. Demands relating to their existence.This is something we will all understand and regarding these demands when Dr Zafrullah spoke to the person who is responsible for the project, a former Additional Superintendent of Police, he informed us that they had accepted these demands but news of this acceptance had not reached the workers. Which is why the workers had protested on the 17th. This was the version of the corporations. When we brought this up with the workers they informed us that on the 16th the owners had asked the workers to send five representatives for a meeting with them. They would then bring up these issues and deal with it in written or verbal form. Five representatives had been sent, but the five representatives never returned to the workers by the following morning. The workers still didn’t know where these representatives were. So we could clearly see there was a difference between the two versions. The following morning when the workers came out in protest and took position outside the office, then the owners asked for two more representatives to be sent from each sector for further meetings. The worker said, “first send back the five people already sent.” They would find out what had already been discussed. This led to a heated situation. Following this agitation the representative of the owner told us that the workers had broken a few things and had been trying to advance towards the homes where the foreign Chinese workers lived. That was when the police opened fire. On the other hand the workers state that at one stage while this agitation was going on, the police took out petrol from one of their own vehicles and set fire to it. And then they began to spread the message that a police vehicle had been set on fire (by the workers) and that there was a conflict and reinforcement was needed to control the situation. So that more police would come in to control the situation. The workers claim that while the police were doing this, and a heated situation had been created, workers also got angry and did retaliate as a result. After this the police opened fire and the workers claim that people wearing police clothes but different shoes, and the same type of helmets that the workers had been issued, were firing guns. So the workers claim that some company people were dressed up as police and many of them opened fire and till now seven have been killed due to the firing. Though the workers claim, and one of them asserted very forcefully that they were more dead because he himself had seen at least nine or even ten who had been shot and he thought all of them had died. This is the perception of the workers and they also say that several bodies are still missing. When Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury spoke to the Officer in Charge of Banshkhali Police Station who had gone to the location with us, and we said we wanted to talk to them the police said they couldn’t talk to us without permission. In other words their mouth was sealed. The most important statement by the workers (despite what was being said by the owners) was “we had already decided that the Chinese were our ‘mehmans’ (guests), whatever was going to happen would happen between us Bangladeshis and we had had already decided that the foreigners would not be affected in anyway” and they had taken special care so that the Chinese would not be disturbed in any way. So the allegations (of the Chinese being threatened) were completely false. This is what the workers told us. So this is the general situation you know after this the police have filed cases against the workers. Not only that but ranging from Banshkhali to the Chottogram Zilla and divisional police administrators, they have actually said that it was the workers who opened fire and this is how they’ve tried to lay the responsibility upon the workers. They’ve filed cases against unnamed thousands, which has led to rampant harassment and arrests in that place. One other thing that needs to be mentioned is a new situation which has materialised. Bangladesh is helpless against syndicates. We now even have vaccine syndicates. We can see that those who bring in vaccines like the organisation BEXIMCO, their director Salman F Rahman who is also the government’s industry advisor, according to the Foreign Minister, is preventing the government from getting vaccine from other countries, like China, Russia and the USA and blocking the government from signing contracts with these countries. So in as horrifying a situation as a pandemic, where people are dying by the hour, in such a situation, when lives of Bangladeshis need to be protected, at that time, vaccine importers are preventing us from getting vaccine from other sources and you know what a difficult vaccine situation we are in. In our country we now have 1.3/1.4 million people who have taken the first jab, they are not guaranteed a second dose so this is the reality. What we’re trying to say is that we hear about the syndicates when it comes to the bazar. About onions, chillis, rice and lentils syndicate. There you have a syndicate for hiring workers. So workers who come to get employment can’t get hired directly. They have to pay taxes to the local powerbroker, that is they have to pay them before they can get hired. This is one. And since in this project since there is an investment and since a Bangladeshi organisation is the main licensee and in charge, so from that perspective, all workers employed here should be employees of this project. But since there is a Chinese involvement then perhaps showing that as an excuse various contract agencies are given subcontracts who hire workers. So the company is not hiring workers directly. They are giving subcontracts to other companies who in turn are hiring these workers. So many of the rights that workers would normally have, are rights the workers are deprived of as the company law under which these rights are determined, are very difficult to establish as it becomes difficult to ascertain who the owner is. This is a problem that already exists in foreign investments in Bangladesh anyway and has been exploited here as well, but not only that, even the hiring by the subcontractors who are powerful, as part of their power dynamics also use these workers to exert their influence. It is these power brokers who collect taxes from the workers. Now the accusation is, that after this attack, most of the workers will lose their jobs. They will need to be rehired, and they will all have to pay taxes again. They will squeeze the tax out of them. So this is the situation that exists. Today we will end with the observation that we believe that a situation has been created where the normal and quite reasonable demands of the workers which should have been accepted, and the owners should have, after discussing with the workers, tried to resolve this. Instead of doing so they harassed the workers in many ways and the workers became agitated, and rather than allaying these concerns the owners turned the police and their pet armed hooligans on the workers and have killed seven people. The number may be higher, numerous people have been arrested about thirty five are there in various hospitals with bullet wounds that we’ve come to know for sure, through various organisations and citizens of Chottogram. Besides there are over a hundred people who have been injured who we’ve had a chance to talk to. In such a shameful situation, where workers have been shot and killed, to then place the blame on the workers is a typical textbook fascism characteristic that has been established. We have condemned this in the strongest possible terms and we have placed some very specific demands which will be placed in front of you in a little while. For the moment I have placed our core observations to you. Now some of us from the group who visited Banshkhali will be expressing their own observations and then Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury will be giving his speech. A distinguished freedom fighter Ishtiaq Aziz Ulfat will now speak to you.