Photos by the Associated Press
Hundreds of clothing factories outside the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka were forced to close temporarily on Monday after protests demanding higher minimum wages for garment workers descended into violence. Police deployed rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse thousands of protestors who were smashing vehicles, vandalizing buildings, and throwing bricks. As the situation escalated, protestors began looting makeshift security camps for guns and ammunition. At least 50 people, including six policemen, were injured in the clashes, according to officials and witnesses.
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The labor unrest—Bangladesh’s largest to date—comes five months after the eight-story Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed, killing 1,129 people in the worst industrial accident the South Asian nation has seen. Workers are calling on the government to raise the monthly minimum wage to 8,000 takas (around $100)—more than double the current minimum wage of 3,000 takas.
Factory owners recently offered workers a 20 percent pay rise, who called the proposal “inhuman and humiliating.”
Although Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry is among the world’s fastest-growing, workers are often paid as little as $38 per month—a quarter of China’s current minimum wage—to sew clothing for major brands and retailers such as H&M, Walmart, and Zara.
Factory owners recently offered workers a 20 percent pay rise, who called the proposal “inhuman and humiliating.” “We work to survive but we can’t even cover our basic needs,” a protesting woman worker told Reuters.
Another misstep occurred in Geneva earlier this month after a group of retailers and brands failed to establish compensation funds for victims of Rana Plaza and the November 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire. Britain’s Primark has made payments to over 3,000 Rana Plaza victims—the only brand to do so. Several companies that placed clothing orders from the buildings, including Walmart, Benetton, and Mango, were noticeably absent at the talks.
Update: Sept. 27, 2013
Most Bangladesh garment factories reopened Thursday after five days of violent demonstrations led to a promise of wage increases for workers. Bangladesh’s government has deployed paramilitary troops in the industrial belt of Gazipur to stem any further protests.
“The situation is now relatively calm,” Mostafijur Rahman, additional superintendent of police for Gazipur district, told Bloomberg News before adding a thinly veiled warning. “Unrest in the garment sector will be firmly dealt with.”
Although shipping minister Shajahan Khan met with factory owners and labor leaders this week in an effort to reach a compromise, no agreement on wages has emerged so far. Khan has said, however, that he has asked a panel known as the Minimum Wage Board to complete and submit a new salary structure for workers to the government by November.