Five workers of an under-construction coal-fired power plant were killed and at least 21 others injured during a clash with police in Banshkhali upazila of Chattogram yesterday morning.
Workers of the SS Power I Plant, a joint venture involving S Alam Group, alleged that the law enforcers opened fire on their peacefully demonstration demanding arrears and pay hikes. They said they were supposed to get arrears of one to three months.
Police and workers said the incident took place in the power plant area under Gandamara union around 9:30am.
Talking to The Daily Star, a witness, Miran Hossain Rocky, a cousin of one the deceased, Raihan, an 18-year-old crane operator from Noakhali, said several hundred workers had been staging demonstrations over several demands, including payment of arrears, since Friday morning.
Police went to the agitators yesterday morning and requested them to go back to work, claiming that the factory owners had agreed to meet all the demands.
"But the workers did not believe the police and demanded that high officials from the power plant come and talk to them. A few minutes later, police appeared again and started firing shots in the air to disperse the protesters," said Miran, whose pants and T-shirt were soaked in blood.
Later, workers regrouped and started throwing brick chunks at the law enforcers, who had taken position nearby. At this, police started firing indiscriminately, leaving some dead and many other injured, several witnesses told The Daily Star.
"My cousin had just come out to his room to see what was happing when two bullets hit his left thigh. I rescued him and took him to two local hospitals in Banshkhali, but they refused to admit him. He died of his injuries after being brought to Chattogram Medical College Hospital," narrated an emotional Miran.
He informed this daily that that Raihan just joined the site five months ago.
Apart from Raihan, the other deceased were identified as Rony of Chuadanga, Md Rahad of Kishoreganj, Shuvo of Narsingdi, and Mahmud Reza of Banshkhali, said district police and Chattogram Medical College Hospital (CMCH) police outpost sources. Their ages could not be known immediately.
None of the protesting workers was direct employees of S Alam Group or Shandong Electric Power Construction Corporation III, the Chinese company it is in partnership with for the power plant construction. Instead, the conglomerate had outsourced labourers from 27 subcontracting organisations, workers told our correspondents
The workers' other demands included an one hour break for iftar, an hour break for prayers, half day on the weekend (Friday), two Eid bonuses based on workers' salaries and end of cutting wages.
"When the Ramadan started, the workers wanted their work hours to be slashed by a few hours from the current 10," said Shahedul Karim Raju, one of the workers. "They wanted break for iftar and sehri, depending on their shifts. At present, if workers took a break for iftar or sehri, their pay is cut," he claimed.
Contacted, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Chattogram Range Anwar Hossain told The Daily Star said, "Workers of the coal-based power plant had been demonstrating since Friday morning over several demands."
"A meeting was held between them and the plant authorities, but the workers started demonstration the next morning. At one point of the demo, they attacked the plant and on-duty police personnel in the project area," he said.
"During the attack, police retaliated with fire, leaving four people dead," added the DIG Anwar.
"Three of our policemen were also injured. They were sent to the CMCH for treatment," said DIG Anwar.
The injured police constables are: Yasir, 24, Abdur Kabir, 26 and Asaduzzaman, 23.
The injured workers included Md Habibullah, 21, Md Rahat, 30, Md Mizan, 22, Md Marad, 25, Md Shakil, 23, Md Kamrul, 26, Md Masum, 24, Md Aminul , 25, Md Didar, 23, Md Omar, 20 and Ovi, 22. The name of the other injured workers could not be known immediately.
Most of the injured workers had bullet injuries, said on-duty doctors of the CMCH emergency ward.
Workers, however, said police fired first.
Another witness, Nazim Uddin, a driver employed at the power plant project, told The Daily Star at the CMCH said, "During the incident, I was standing just outside the factory gate where I saw workers gathering to press home their demands. Suddenly, I heard indiscriminate gunshots and later found many workers bullet hit."
After the firing started, six vehicles were set on fire, reported our correspondents. The police blamed the workers for arson, while the workers blamed it on the law enforcers.
The situation in the area had been tense since the shooting.
Several hours after the workers were killed, a cement warehouse in the area was set on fire.
The family of each of the deceased would be given Tk 3 lakh by the district commissioner's office, while those injured would get Tk 50,000, announced the local administration.
"Whatever steps we took, we had to protect the lives and properties of the Chinese citizens in the area," commented SM Rashidul Haque, superintendent of police in Chattagram.
No police case was lodged when this report was filed late last night.
The DIG said the situation was under control and that additional police members were deployed to fend off any untoward incident.
Meanwhile, Azizul Islam, officer-in-charge (investigation), of Banshkhali Police Station, said a case was being filed over the assault on police. He, however, could not say how many people would be accused.
Ebadat Hossen, chief financial officer of SS Power Plant, told The Daily Star that they did not deal with their labourers directly. The subcontractors under the Chinese company looks after them, he said.
"We don't know exactly what has happened, but we are collecting information and will come up with a statement after a few days," he said.
The workers said they used to work 12 hours, including an overtime of four hours, daily.
The Daily Star correspondents, who visited the spot yesterday, saw workers living in deplorable conditions and being forced into using overflowing toilets.
S Alam Group is installing the 1,224 megawatt coal-fired power plant at Gandamara of Banshkhali.
On April 4, 2016, four villagers were killed during a clash over land acquisition for the power plant project.
Meanwhile, several rights bodies have decried the use of excessive force against the protesters.
Ain o Salish Kendra, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (Bapa), Manabadhikar Shangskriti Forum, headed by Sultana Kamal, Garments Workers Trade Union Centre, and Garments Workers Trade Union Centre issued statements, protesting the incident.
Leaders and activists of Bangladesh Socialist Students Front also staged a protest rally at TSC, Dhaka University yesterday.