TWO striking garment workers were shot dead by police in Bangladesh on Monday.
Almost 140 Bangladeshi garment factories were shut as thousands of workers took strike action across the country on Monday, in support of their union’s fight for a new $100 a month minimum wage.
The two were killed in clashes with the police outside Dhaka.
Strike action against low wages and dangerous working conditions have gathered momentum since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in April on the outskirts of Dhaka that killed 1,135 people.
Monday’s violence erupted at Ashulia, home to Bangladesh’s biggest garment plants which make clothing for top Western retailers such as Walmart, in the industrial district of Gazipur north of Dhaka.
The two workers died after police opened fire on labourers as they exited the GMS Composite Knitting Industry in Gazipur.
‘First, factory authorities beat one of our colleagues and then as we were coming out of the factory in protest, police opened fire,’ said a striking worker.
‘Two workers died and several were injured. The factory authorities dragged several of the injured workers inside the plant.
‘We don’t know what happened to them,’ said the worker, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
A spokesman for Enam Medical College where one of the bodies was kept, said the male worker had a bullet wound in his neck.
Police confirmed the death toll but denied that they fired live rounds at the workers.
The strikes are against a new minimum wage being imposed by the factory owners and the government for the country’s four-million garment workers in December.
The minimum monthly salary for new employees is being raised to $68 a month in December – two dollars a day!
But the unions are striking for a $100 a month minimum, as well as demanding pay rises for skilled and experienced senior sewing operators who say they are losing out.
They are also fighting cuts in food and transport allowances that some of the employers are attempting to impose.
The proposed new minimum wages leaves Bangladeshi garment workers as some of the lowest paid in the sector globally.
Industrial police force spokesman Shamsur Rahman said more than 10,000 workers were protesting at Konabari in Gazipur and thousands more in other parts of the district.
‘They threw rocks at the officers. We fired rubber bullets and tear gas,’ he said.
Monday’s strikes forced the closure of 87 factories at Ashulia, 37 at Konabari and around 15 more elsewhere in Gazipur.
Union leader Babul Akter said the new pay scales treated many workers unfairly.
‘The workers are angry the government has not kept its word to make the new wage effective from November.
‘Skilled workers are not happy because they didn’t get the same hike as entry-level workers,’ he said.
‘Besides, in some factories, the new pay scale will lead to a cut in food and transport allowances.
‘In the new scale, the annual increment has been fixed at five per cent while workers in many factories already get annual increments of eight to 15 per cent,’ he added.
Meanwhile, a new report Bangladesh: Seeking better employment conditions for better socioeconomic outcomes, has been produced by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
According to the report, Bangladesh experienced relatively high economic growth over the past two decades, mainly due to garment exports.
The country accounted for 4.8 per cent of global apparel exports in 2011, compared with only 0.6 per cent in 1990.
But unregulated industry growth has contributed to poor working conditions in that sector, which have acted as an obstacle to sustainable development and, moreover, resulted in some of the worst industrial disasters on record.
For example, Bangladeshi garment sector workers earn some of the lowest wages in the region.
As of August 2013, the monthly minimum wage for entry-level workers in the garment sector was US$39 per month – about half of the lowest rate in other major garment-exporting countries, such as Cambodia (US$80), India (US$71), Pakistan (US$79), Sri Lanka (US$73) and Vietnam (US$78).
While some other countries revise their minimum wages on a regular basis, Bangladesh has adjusted the Ready Made Garments (RMG) minimum wage only three times since it was first set in 1985 – with the last revision dating back to 2010.
A wage board constituted this year is expected to make recommendations for a minimum wage increase shortly.
Recent accidents have brought the issue of occupational health and safety risks in the Bangladeshi garment sector to world attention, including a factory fire in November 2012 that killed 117 workers and the collapse of a building housing several RMG manufacturers in April 2013 that killed 1,129 workers – the latter being one of the worst industrial disasters on record.
Although the government has taken some concrete action in the past six months to address health and safety issues, poor conditions remain a challenge in many factories across the country, especially those in the RMG sector.
According to national estimates, poverty has declined but as of 2010, 76 per cent of the population lived on less than US$2 per day – the highest share in the region.
Furthermore Bangladesh’s social protection coverage is among the lowest in the region. In 2010, less than ten per cent of all urban poor had access to social assistance.
The report warns that unless a comprehensive set of labour market and social policies are introduced, Bangladesh will be unable to maintain its economic momentum and improve living standards in a sustainable way. And while the RMG sector is central to the economy, new measures need to be far-reaching.
First, improving employment prospects and working conditions – notably in the RMG sector – will help to safeguard exports, which have been a key driver of growth and employment creation, especially for women.
It will also help to stop the outflow of Bangladeshi youth who face some of the highest recruitment fees in the region and are often confronted by abuse at the hands of employers in receiving countries.
Second, there is an urgent need to strengthen wage-setting policies, notably through the role of effective minimum wages. In this respect, it will be important to monitor the recommendations of the tripartite Minimum Wages Board, which is scheduled to submit its proposal by November 2013.
Third, it is crucial to tackle informality. The working-age population has grown at a rate of more than two million people per year over the past two decades but formal job creation has averaged only 200,000 per year in the past 10 years. As a result, the incidence of informal employment increased from 75 per cent in 1999/2000 to 87 per cent in 2010 – the highest in the region.
Finally, women have made an important contribution to development in Bangladesh, as well as to the modernisation of rural society and agricultural production. But a number of important gender disparities persist, notably in terms of educational attainment, labour market outcomes and working conditions.
‘ILO technical assistance will be key in achieving these goals.
‘The Ready-Made Garment Sector programme launched by the ILO and the Government of Bangladesh last month will lead to lasting improvements in working conditions and safety for the tens of thousands of garment factory workers in Bangladesh,’ ILO Deputy Director-General for Field Operations and Partnerships, Gilbert Houngbo, said.
According to Houngbo, the next challenge will be to coordinate the ILO-sponsored RMG programme, the Sustainability Compact adopted by the European Union and private sector initiatives like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Among other findings the report says that:
• Between 2000 and 2010, when GDP growth averaged nearly 6 per cent, the employment rate fell 1.7 percentage points, to stand at roughly 67 per cent in 2010.
• In 2010, the gap between the youth and adult employment rates stood at roughly 20 percentage points; it has risen further in recent years. More troubling is the fact that unemployment increases with educational attainment.
• Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest recipients of remittances per year. In 2011, it accounted for 10.8 per cent of its GDP or US$12 billion – a five-fold increase compared to a decade ago. Meanwhile, the annual outflow of Bangladeshis overseas increased four-fold. The prospect of higher earnings appears to be a main pull factor.
• Bangladeshi migrants pay some of the highest recruiting fees in the region – the average cost per worker going abroad is 4.5 times higher than the annual GDP per capita.