Bangladesh closes over 50 garment factories as wage unrest continues
The garment industry contributes 16 per cent of Bangladesh's GDP, earning about USD 55 billion annually through exports
Authorities in Bangladesh have announced the temporary closure of more than 50 garment factories afresh as workers continued their protests for an increase in minimum wages, a day after a female worker was killed in clashes with the police.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) leaders said owners of over 50 garment factories in suburban Gazipur and Ashulia were forced to close their units as workers clashed with the police, halting a major highway linking Dhaka with some northern districts.
“Workers in different factories took to the streets in several groups across Gazipur and Ashulia... we are trying to avoid any violent confrontation,” a police officer at the scene told a private TV channel.
Bangladesh authorities announced an enhanced salary structure for readymade garment (RMG) factory workers on Tuesday amidst street campaigns coinciding with the ongoing political unrest in the country. However, the workers have rejected the hike, calling it too little.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, meanwhile, asked garments workers to join work under the newly announced minimum wage. "Whenever the time comes, we'll provide them (RMG workers) with all facilities,” she said.
Witnesses said thousands of workers took to the streets afresh on Thursday when police initially managed to pacify them through talks, but clashes erupted shortly thereafter when protestors threw bricks and stones at police officers and factories.
The unrest in Bangladesh’s principal export-earning RMG industry started last week, leaving three workers dead while the country simultaneously witnessed political violence over the next general elections expected in early January 2024.
Some 600 factories were shuttered and scores ransacked in protests over wages in the past week. The protests prompted a government-appointed panel comprising factory owners, union leaders and officials to announce a new pay structure, enhancing the minimum wage by 56.25 per cent to taka 12,500 (USD 114) per month from 1 December.
This was the first increase in five years, while workers demanded almost twice the amount offered, wanting the figure to be fixed at taka 23,000. They currently get a little over taka 8,000 as minimum wage.
Workers said the wage raise was not consistent with the price hike of daily food items, other essentials and increased house rents, with Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation president Kalpona Akter saying on Wednesday that they were “extremely frustrated with the paltry increase”.
Meanwhile, BGMEA leaders said paying even the new wage structure announced on Tuesday was difficult for them. “Yet we accepted the new wage structure as all parties agreed to the rise,” BGMEA representative Siddiqur Rahman said.
The prime minister, on the other hand, said workers must “proceed with their work” and warned them not to be influenced by any quarter, in an oblique reference to the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. “They (BNP) are the ones who will create a situation where workers may lose their jobs and have to return to their villages," Hasina said.
Low wages have helped Bangladesh build its lucrative garment industry, which employs about 4 million people, while the country’s nearly 4,000 RMG units account for about 85 per cent of its USD 55 billion in annual exports.
The RMG products are mainly destined for the United States and Europe with the world's top brands like Levi's, Zara, GAP and H&M being procurers of Bangladesh-made garments.
The garments industry accounts for almost 16 per cent of Bangladesh’s GDP while the country annually earns about USD 55 billion exporting garment products.
A female garment worker was killed on Wednesday in clashes with the police, the third death in seven days.
The protests earlier this week saw fierce clashes leaving two workers dead and dozens more wounded. Police said some 600 factories were shuttered last week and scores were ransacked in protests over wages in the past week.