Unable to live on their wages, Bangladeshi workers are threatening to continue protests that have seen factories ransacked and led to violent clashes with police.
‘If they do not meet our demands we will have no option but to strike, we will create a militant movement, we will be on the streets again,’ Mosherafa Mishu, head of Bangladesh’s Garment Workers Unity Forum warned last weekend.
He was speaking as millions of low paid Bangladeshi garment workers who work 13-hour days producing clothes for the big Western retail chains await a decision on the minimum wage which will finally see them granted a pay rise.
On Wednesday, a committee of government officials, garment manufacturers and union leaders will announce whether the current monthly minimum wage of just 1,662 taka ($23.97) will be raised.
The Bangladeshi government and industry representatives have been now locked in discussions over the wage rise, with unions demanding a 5,000 taka minimum and factory owners resisting a substantial increase.
Mishu added: ‘Do you see how much rent is? How much food costs?
‘And they earn just 1,662 per month, and this is including allowances. The actual basic salary is 1,100 taka.
‘How can three million workers live on this tiny amount?’
On June 22, hundreds of thousands of workers closed the key Ashulia export area that produces for Wal-Mart, H & M and Marks & Spencer, a major blow for an industry that is aiming to steal contracts from Chinese competitors.
Bangladesh’s 4,500 garment factories employ 2.5 million workers or around 40 per cent of the industrial workforce, the majority of whom are women.
Expressing the feelings of her mainly female fellow workers, Shanty Begum, who has worked in a factory for 17 years, said yesterday: ‘This week’s decision is so important – for the workers, for the industry, for the country.’
Garment workers have spoke out against routine violations of the current minimum standards including underpayment, working hours far in excess of the statutory limit and abuse by factory managers.
Many say they haven’t been paid for months.
Begum alleged that when she complained of this to her manager ‘he smashed my head into a sewing machine, I was in hospital for three months’.
Eighteen-year-old Nargis Akher worked at a factory for two-and-a-half years earning 1,660 taka a month until a fortnight ago, when she lost her job because she took part in the mass protests.
She alleged that ‘when they found out’ her manager ‘slapped me across the face, called me a whore and dragged me out of the factory by my hair’.
She did not think she would ever get the back wages owed her.
She added that everyone had ‘joined the protests secretly because we can’t live like this’.
‘I am behind on my rent, I have food bills I haven’t paid,’ she said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina last week urged the heads of the powerful garment industry, which accounts for 80 per cent of the South Asian country’s annual exports, to compromise.
Addressing the Bangladeshi parliament, he said: ‘It is not possible for the workers to live on the wages they get now.
‘Factory owners are profiting from this industry, they have to share some of these profits with the workers.’
Hasina said added that she believed the current negotiations would find an ‘acceptable solution’ on a wage increase.
But the industry bosses, who enjoyed record sales last month, with Bangladesh shipping $1.72 billion of goods in June, the highest monthly export in the country’s 40-year history, said they are not prepared to back down.
The acting president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association (BGMEA), Faruque Hassan claimed the country is being ‘unfairly maligned’ over wages.
He said: ‘Our competitors, for example Cambodia, Vietnam, they are paying very similar wages to us, very similar amounts per hour.’
Faruque warned that a wage hike or further unrest risked jeopardising the future of the industry, particularly as it seeks to capitalise on the recent rise in manufacturing costs in China.
Commerce Ministry spokesman Faizul Haque said last Friday said that even if Bangladeshi workers do secure a wage hike, however, enforcement is likely to be difficult.
A quarter of the country’s garment factories do not comply with current mandatory standards on pay, working hours and conditions, he added.
Meanwhile, hundreds of protesting garment workers blocked streets in the capital, Dhaka, on Friday after a female worker was found dead, having apparently fallen off a factory roof, police said.
Local police chief Kazi Wazed Ali added that the father of the victim has filed a case with the police, claiming that five employees of the Vertex Garment Factory in the city’s Mirpur district pushed her off the factory roof.
Ali said: ‘The father, in his statement, named the persons responsible but did not mention any reason why they would kill her.
‘We are now investigating the death of the worker.’
As news of the death spread, more than 1,000 garment workers blocked a key highway in Mirpur to protest over the incident.
Police fired tear gas shells to disperse the protesters, Ali said, adding: ‘They were demanding a proper investigation.’