Workers making garments for some of the world’s most successful clothing brands demand that the Bangladesh government increase the minimum wage, currently about $38 per month.
At least 50 people were hurt as protesters clashed with police in violent protests in Bangladesh’s capitol Dhaka. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to control nearly 50,000 garment workers protesting for higher wages.
In all, 400 of 5,000 Bangladesh garment factories have been closed as garment workers strike to increase their minimum wage from 3,000 daka (less than $40 per month) to 8,000 daka ($100 per month). Strikers have been blocking traffic, bringing Dhaka, Bangladesh’s largest city, to a standstill.
“I hope the workers will get back to work,” Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan told reporters on Bloomberg. In return, Khan promised to increase security for factories that employ 3.6 million people, mostly women, accounting for 78 percent of the country’s export earnings.
Forces for Fair Wages Unite
The protests come as a new law makes it legal for garment workers to form unions. At the same time, stakeholders, like H&M have joined IndustriALL Global Union in asking for a higher minimum wage for garment workers.
“We strongly support the workers demand for higher wages,” H&M spokeswoman Andrea Roos said by e-mail to Bloomberg. “Bangladesh is an important sourcing market for H&M and we have on various occasions and also together with other clothing companies, urged the government to raise minimum wages in the textile industry and to revise wages annually.”
Bangladesh has risen to become the second largest garment producer after China, grossing $19 billion, with minimum wages that are the lowest in Asia next to Myanmar.
Amid Disaster, Inspections Needed
The strike comes five months after the 8-story Rana Plaza factory collapsed killing more than 1,000 people. It’s considered the worst industrial disaster in the country’s history. In all, 2,000 factories in Dhaka, similar to Rana Plaza, have been unlawfully expanding using shoddy construction but with only 40 building inspectors in the city, it’s hard to shut them down.
According to The New York Times, “A single inspector might visit a 1,000-employee factory for six to eight hours to review all types of manufacturing issues, like wages, child labor or toxic chemicals. Some auditors receive only five days of training, whereas the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires three years of training and experience assisting inspectors before employees can lead an inspection of a sizable factory in the United States.”
While Bangladesh has a long way to go in terms of safety and a fair minimum wage, the government worries about alienating Western consumers who have helped to build an industry that makes up 80 percent of the country’s exports. But as factory workers begin to find their voice, it becomes more and more difficult to deny their rightful demands.