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Vol. 77/No. 43      December 2, 2013

Bangladesh garment workers
fight for higher wages, safety
Tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh have taken to the streets in the last few weeks after a government proposal for a raise in the minimum wage fell far short of their demand. Hundreds of factories have been closed down.

The most recent wave of protest strikes follows a series of mobilizations pressing for higher wages, safer workplaces and union recognition over the past half year, including a six-day strike in September that shut down some 20 percent of the country’s 3,200 garment factories and a demonstration of 50,000 workers in the capital Dhaka Sept. 21.

A government-appointed wage board recommended Nov. 4 that the new monthly minimum wage be set at 5,300 taka ($68), a 77 percent increase from today’s 3,000 taka. The board consists of government officials, garment manufacturers and Sirajul Islam Rony, president of the National Garment Workers Employees League, one of dozens of labor federations in the country.

“Our demand has been 8,000 taka [$101], 45 union federations jointly took the position that 5,300 taka is not acceptable,” Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, said in a phone interview from Dhaka Nov. 11. “We are in broad agreement on this, but we were not represented on the board.”

Representatives from the Garment Manufacturers Association objected to the proposal of 5,300 taka, saying they can’t do more than 4,500 ($57).

“They demand that the government set 4,500 taka as the minimum wage within 15 days,” Amin said. “If not, they say they cannot run their business and they will turn the keys over to the government and make it responsible for the bank loans they have.”

A new minimum wage has to be approved by the Labor Ministry before taking effect. The 45 federations jointly organized a press conference to make their opposition public.

The day after the proposal of 5,300 taka became known, workers in Gazipur, north of Dhaka, staged protest demonstrations, halting production in at least 65 plants. Some 20 workers were injured in clashes with cops.

“Workers are impatient and angry,” Amin said. “Things are going on all the time. Actions of different kinds will continue, because workers can’t live on these wages. Rents are going up and prices are rising for food and transport.”

On Nov. 11, workers shut down production in more than 100 plants in Ashulia. The following day the protests spread to Savar, shutting down an additional 100 plants. These two industrial belts in the northern outskirts of Dhaka have 350 garment factories. More than 30,000 workers took to the streets to press the demand for 8,000 taka.

Cops fired rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas in their attempts to break up the demonstrations. The government deployed hundreds of paramilitary border guards to assist the cops. Angry workers hurled stones at the police forces and at least 80 workers were injured over the two days of protests, Industrial Police Director Mustafizur Rahman told the press. The 2,900 strong Industrial Police Force was set up in 2010, in the midst of monthslong demonstrations that forced the government to raise the minimum wage to 3,000 taka from 1,662.

The garment sector accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports and employs 4 million workers, mostly women. Wages are the lowest of all major garment producers and hundreds have been killed over the past couple years as a result of building collapses, fires and other dangerous conditions imposed by bosses cutting every corner and squeezing every ounce of profit they can. These conditions have engendered stepped-up attempts to organize unions, which have been met with fierce resistance from the bosses and their government.
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