AT LEAST three workers have been killed after protests over garment workers’ wages escalated in Bangladesh, where thousands of angry workers demanding a near-tripling of the minimum wage to 23,000 taka ($208) clashed with police.
Police said Jalal Uddin, 42, a garment worker who was injured in clashes with officers earlier this month in Gazipur, north of the capital Dhaka, died from his injuries on Saturday.
Uddin’s brother-in-law Rezaul Karim told reporters he had been shot in the stomach by a shotgun, and had been brought to Dhaka for treatment.
Last Wednesday Anjuara Khatun, a 26-year-old machine operator at Islam Garments in Gazipur, was on her way home after the factory closed suddenly as a large group of protesters gathered nearby.
Police opened fire on the protest.
Her husband told reporters he heard gunshots when police opened fire on about 400 workers and then saw people carrying his wife’s motionless body. ‘She was shot in the head and died in the car on the way to the hospital,’ he said.
Trade union leaders have accused the police of killing maintenance technician Rasel Hawlader, 26, who worked at the Design Express garment factory in Gazipur, who died after he was shot in the chest and right hand during a protest in the city.
They also condemned the police shooting and injuring of Amirul Islam, a worker at Columbia Garments on 30th October 2023.
Workers in Bangladesh continue to protest for a higher minimum wage in light of the inadequate increase that the government approved when it announced the new minimum wage as BDT12,500 (US$112) on 9th November.
Trade unions, including IndustriALL affiliates, have been demanding that the minimum wage of an-entry level garment worker be fixed at BDT23,000 (US$206), with a yearly increment of ten per cent.
There have been several protest demonstrations, especially after the fourth meeting of the wage board on 22 October, when garment factory owners proposed to increase the minimum wage to BDT10,400 (US$93).
The new minimum wage of BDT12,500 (US$112) is insufficient to meet workers’ daily needs given the rising of cost of living.
Atle Hoie, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, said: ‘It seems that the government of Bangladesh intends to keep the workforce under the poverty line.
‘Brands should question their sourcing if the minimum wages are kept at such low levels and the violations of the right to organise and to bargain collectively are not dealt with.
‘Workers now desperately need unions who can fight for higher wages and who do not have to fight a repressive government and employers.’
Apoorva Kaiwar, south Asia regional secretary of IndustriALL, said: ‘IndustriALL calls on the government of Bangladesh to reconsider the minimum wage for garment workers to BDT23,000.’
Last Thursday, the international trades union organisation wrote a letter to Bangladesh’s prime minister calling on the government to stop the police crackdown on workers’ minimum wage protests.
The letter said:
‘Dear Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,
‘I am writing to you as the General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, which represents more than fifty million workers in mining, energy and manufacturing sectors across the world, including Bangladesh, to draw your attention to the recent attacks on trade union rights and workers’ rights in Bangladesh, and to call on your government to reconsider the minimum wage for garment workers to BDT23,000.
‘As you may be aware, trade unions in Bangladesh, including IndustriALL’s affiliates, have been protesting for an increase in garment workers’ minimum wage.
‘Unions are demanding that the minimum wage of an-entry level garment worker be fixed at BDT23,000 with a yearly increment of ten per cent.
‘Several protest demonstrations have been held in this regard, especially after the fourth meeting of the wage board on 22 October, in which garment factory owners proposed to increase the minimum wage to BDT10,400.
‘On 7th November, your government announced the new minimum wage as BDT12,500.
‘The new wage is much less than what workers have been demanding and more in line with what the owners of garment factories had proposed.
‘It is not enough to reach a living wage. Brands should question their sourcing if the minimum wages are kept at such low levels and the violations of the right to organise and to bargain collectively are not dealt with.
‘Workers’ protests have continued because of the inadequate increase in the minimum wage and the Dhaka police have been trying to violently suppress them.
‘Additionally, organisers from IndustriALL’s affiliates have been arrested. Our affiliates informed that police have filed cases against several other organisers and workers alleging vandalism and assault.
‘Since the announcement of the new minimum wage, IndustriALL’s affiliates’ central as well as local leadership is being harassed through repeated phone calls and threats of arrests from police and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence.
‘The brutal police action against workers in Bangladesh coincides with the ILO Governing Body meeting which will be examining the latest progress report submitted by your government on the implementation of the ILO Roadmap.
‘It is unfortunate that this is the state of affairs in reality, considering that one of the priority areas of the Roadmap for which the Bangladesh government needs to show it has taken measures, is on stopping anti-union discrimination and violence against workers.
‘IndustriALL requests you to ensure that police do not use force against protesting workers and threat of arrest against trade unionists.
‘Workers need unions who can fight for higher wages. We also call upon your government to reconsider the minimum wage for garment workers to BDT23,000.
‘We look forward to your immediate action and reply.
Prime Minister Hasina has rejected any further pay hikes for protesting garment workers demanding a nearly tripled wage increase, after violent clashes with police, and factories were ransacked.
The protests have left at least three workers dead and more than 70 factories ransacked since last week, – according to police.
Bangladesh’s 3,500 garment factories account for around 85% of its $55bn in annual exports, supplying many of the world’s top brands including Levi’s, Zara and H&M.
Hasina told a meeting of her ruling Awami League party late on Thursday: ‘I would say to the garment workers: they have to work with whatever their salary is increased, they should continue their work.
‘If they take to the streets to protest at someone’s instigation, they will lose their job, lose their work and will have to return to their village.
‘If these factories are closed, if production is disrupted, exports are disrupted, where will their jobs be? They have to understand that.’
Hasina claimed 19 factories were ‘attacked and destroyed’, adding these were businesses that ‘give them bread and butter and food and employment’.
A union leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hasina’s speech had created a ‘climate of fear’ in the industry, and warning it had given security forces the green light to crack down further on protests.
Police have arrested more than 100 protesters including several union leaders over charges of violence and vandalising factories.
Last Thursday, police reported violence in the key industrial towns of Gazipur and Ashulia, outside the capital Dhaka, after more than 25,000 workers staged protests in factories and along highways to reject the wage panel’s offer.