Bangladesh garment workers reject wage raise announced by govt

Reyad Hossain
Bangladesh garment workers reject wage raise announced by govt Labor activists chant slogans demanding a wage increase to 23,000 taka (U.S. $208) in front of the Minimum Wage Board in Dhaka, Nov. 7, 2023.

UPDATED at 8:28 a.m. ET on 2023-11-08

Garment unions swiftly rejected a 56% hike to the minimum wage that Bangladesh’s government set on Tuesday after days of violent protests and factory shutdowns where striking workers demanded a near-tripling of their pay.

Based on a proposal from factory owners, the millions of employees who make up the country’s ready-made garment industry will now receive a minimum monthly wage of U.S. $113 – up from $72 – the employment minister said, although unions were demanding a pay bump of up to $208 monthly for minimum pay.

“They don’t regard workers as human beings. If they did, they would not have made such a proposal,” Taslima Akhter, a prominent activist who leads an alliance of 11 labor organizations, told BenarNews.

The industry is an engine of the South Asian nation’s economy. More than 80% of Bangladesh’s $47-billion exports come from the garment industry, where thousands of factories manufacture clothes for major Western brands such as H&M and Gap Inc. 

The new minimum monthly wage does not capture the steep inflation that Bangladesh has seen since 2018, when the current wage was finalized at 8,000 taka. 

Five years ago, the monthly minimum salary equaled about $97 but has since been reduced to $72. Once adjusted for inflation against the U.S. dollar, the proposed new wage in fact represents a real increase of about 18%.

“The way the prices of goods are increasing, it will become difficult for the workers to live on this wage,” said Towhidur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Apparel Workers’ Federation.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will review and finalize the new wage within a two-week period, but multiple sources say that it was determined with her consent.

“We are announcing these wages on the verbal instructions of the prime minister,” Begum Monnujan Sufian, the labor and employment minister of state, said after a meeting of the government wage board on Tuesday. 

She also asked workers to accept the new figure. 

“If the industry is damaged, the workers will suffer first,” she said.

On Oct. 22, when factory owners proposed a wage of 10,400 taka ($94), it led workers to take to the streets and demand a much higher pay, of up to 25,000 taka ($227). At least two workers were killed as street clashes broke out during the protests.

The strike also paralyzed parts of Dhaka and neighboring outskirts, forcing the closure of about 500 factories. The police used tear gas and sound grenades to disperse the protesters.

Almost all factories have since been reopened after a meeting with the government, but Tuesday’s announcement of the new wage could lead to fresh protests, labor leaders said.

“We already heard the news about labor protests in certain industrial areas. If workers take to the streets again, they will keep on protesting,” said Akhter, whose alliance called for a rally in Dhaka on Nov. 10.

The businesspeople who own garment factories are believed to wield significant influence in the government and the ruling Awami League party. 

The wage board’s proposed pay mirrored the one offered by the representative of the owners.

The representative, Siddiqur Rahman, is a major businessman who serves as the ruling Awami League party’s secretary for commerce and industries. 

Last month, officials from 15 global apparel brands wrote a letter to Prime Minister Hasina, pledging to implement “responsible purchasing practices” while urging her to consider inflationary pressures and cover workers’ basic needs when introducing new wages.

According to official data, inflation to food prices in Bangladesh peaked at 12.54% in August, the highest in more than a decade, a trend that continued in October.

The story was updated to remove a sentence about protests in Gazipur unrelated to the development.


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