Tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers walk out

IndustriALL union protest demanding a doubling of the minimum wage
IndustriALL union protest demanding a doubling of the minimum wage

THE PAST two weeks have seen mass walkouts and wildcat strikes by thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh. After five years the industry’s minimum wage structure has been adjusted but workers have rejected the proposed new wage levels.

The protests began after the first announcement by the government Wage Board of the new wage levels in September. By December there was a large movement of factory walkouts and road blockades as workers rejected the deal. These struggles reignited in the past two weeks before a general drift back to work in recent days.

The government wage board is composed of government ministers, garment bosses and trade union leaders; it first announced its wage review in September last year.

Its recommendations were rejected by workers and led to strikes and street protests in December.

In the industrial sectors of Dhaka, Gazipur, Savar and Ashulia the wildcat strikes broke out again in the past two weeks; 35 factories were closed and tens of thousands of workers poured onto the streets. Factory property has been attacked and looted, roads have been blocked and vehicles set on fire by protesters.

Last week police used baton charges, rubber bullets and tear gas against workers – killing a male worker, Sumon Miah, and injuring 50 others. A breakaway group of hundreds of workers laid siege to the employers federation BGMEA Dhaka HQ, demanding wage arrears, smashing vehicles, machinery and windows and fighting with BGMEA officials.

Since the strikes and lockouts have ended hundreds of workers have been sacked.

On returning to work, at some factories workers found lists of names and/or photos of those dismissed pinned to the entrance – clearly intended as a warning against further protests.

The factory areas have been saturated with a heavy armed police presence. 25 workers have been charged with riot offences and hundreds of others are wanted for charges laid against them. The Bangladeshi ready made garment (RMG) industry is by far the country’s largest employer and earner.

It employs 4 million workers, around 60% women, in 4000 factories. It has a steady export growth averaging over 7% per year at present and annual export earnings of $31 billion. Yet it pays the lowest industrial wages in the world and, even with the new increase, RMG workers will remain the lowest paid of all, despite the fact that it is the 2nd largest global garment exporter.

The monthly minimum wage was set at $68 in 2013 and has now been set at $95.

For comparison, the minimum wage in China is $265 a month, Indonesia $220, Vietnam $131, India $128 and Cambodia $100. The Bangladeshi pay structure is a complicated combination of basic pay plus a variety of legally-required and optional allowances (eg, rent and travel), bonuses and incremental payments.

Overtime wages form another part of most workers’ take-home pay. Wages are calculated according to a seven-step grading system for each job classification, based on seniority and experience. There is also a 5% per year increase – which falls far below annual inflation.

Aside from the fact that the pay rises are far below what workers were demanding and what independent observers consider a living wage, the rises are also unevenly distributed between different grades of staff with some grades gaining no real increase at all or even becoming worse off.

The garment bosses, who grow richer by the year, act like the worst caricature of 19th century top-hatted miserly capitalists. They are represented by the BGMEA employers federation which has bitterly lobbied against even the modest increases agreed by the government wage board (which it is represented on).

As always, they falsely complain that wage rises will cripple the industry.

The garment bosses already get preferential subsidies from the State for electricity and other costs as well as generous tax breaks. These subsidies add up to considerably more than the industry pays in tax.

This cosy arrangement is unsurprising; many politicians have business interests in the industry, some are factory owners and the BGMEA makes regular donations to leading political parties. To add insult to the workers’ injury the government last week announced that it has conceded the further tax cuts the BGMEA had demanded in response to the wage increases.

Tax on exports will be lowered from 0.60% to 0.25%. This is the second recent cut; after the first wage review in September the BGMEA had demanded and received a cut from 1% to 0.60%. These hefty 75% tax cuts for the garment bosses will go a long way to compensate for the added costs of wage rises.

After the 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster, under pressure from global buyers and Western labour bodies, legal reforms were made to try to improve the international image of the garment industry. Full trade union rights were granted to workers. But these rights to form workplace unions have been largely cosmetic, often not being enforced by the State nor allowed by employers.

The police and factory owners have bullied, beaten and blacklisted against workers’ attempts at organisation and often obstructed the legal recognition process for registering new unions. So while more small unions now exist they are still marginal to events. They play a part in formal negotiations with the State and employers but, with tiny memberships, a thoroughly reformist and un-militant outlook, they have little influence over workers’ struggles or day to day existence.

As per the latest wage structure, announced a few days ago, an entry-level operator will get US$95 (Tk 8,000) a month. In the current wage structure it is US$68 (Tk5,300), reports Dhaka Tribune. But the US$95 monthly minimum wage is still the lowest in globe, according to a survey report of the Japan External Trade Organisation.

The survey, conducted between December 2017 and March 2018, reveals that the average monthly wage in Bangladesh was just US$101, compared with US$135 for Myanmar, U$170 for Cambodia, US$234 for Vietnam and US$518 for China.

According to Tariq Adnan a Bangladeshi has to earn at least US$314 per month to house, clothe and feed a family of five. But even the top most Bangladeshi garment factory worker earns only US$218 per month, he points out.

And if a five-member family is to get the right amount of nutrition and calories, it has to spend US$435 on food alone. But as of now, an average worker’s family spends only US$168 on food. Adnan’s survey found that 70% of the garment workers complained that they had no savings.

However, wages are not the only issue facing the industry. Overall working conditions are appalling. As a result, productivity is low. Productivity fell to US$0.22 per hour in 2017, says Tariq Adnan.

Poor infrastructure led to horrendous accidents as in 2012 and 2013. And given the callous attitude of managements, the unions and the government, there is no guarantee that such things will not recur.

Dilapidated and inadequate infrastructure led to the death of 200 workers at the Tasreen garment factory in 2012, and 1134 died in the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, in which an eight-floor building collapsed.

Shanjida Shahab Uddin, writing in www.southasiajournal.net in 2015 said that women workers in the Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry have to face severe health related complications due to unsafe factory conditions; stringent rules; frequent overtime work along with daily long working hours; and the absence of maternity leave.

‘According to Bangladeshi law, workers are supposed to work an eight-hour shift. However, garment workers are forced to work extra hours on a daily basis in order to meet production targets set by factory owners. Research shows that around 80% of women workers leave the factory between 8pm and 10pm after starting work at 8am, violating Bangladeshi labour laws which state that under no circumstances should daily working hours exceed 10 hours,’ Shahab Uddin says.

‘The worst part is that, after doing overtime, women workers often remain unpaid. Factory owners cut their overtime payment whenever they want. Female workers are cheated more often than men, as they are seen as quieter and less likely to complain. It is also noticed that only a small number of the workers receive letters of appointment, while most of them carry only a factory identity card,’ she adds.