Bangladesh garment industry

Bangladeshi workers' pay protest enters third day; factories ablaze

Demonstrators block roads and clash with police on third day of action for minimum wage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 3:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 September, 2013, 2:31am

Angry Bangladeshi garment workers blocked roads, set factories alight and clashed with police for a third day yesterday as protests demanding a minimum monthly wage of 8,000 taka, equivalent to US$100, spread outside the capital.

Abdul Baten, police chief of the Gazipur industrial district near Dhaka which is home to hundreds of factories, many Chinese-owned, said "up to 200,000 workers" had joined the latest demonstrations.

His deputy, Mustafizur Rahman, said about 300 factories, which make clothing for top Western retailers such as Walmart, were shut to contain the violence as protesting workers attacked plants that stayed open.

"The situation is extremely volatile. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the unruly workers," he said, adding workers attacked more than a dozen factories with rocks. Dozens of employees and several policemen were injured.

Manufacturers said yesterday's protests were some of the worst in the sector since 2010, when months of demonstrations forced the government and factory owners to agree to a minimum monthly wage of 3,000 taka (HK$230).

Bangladeshi textile workers are among the worst paid in the sector worldwide and often toil for 80 hours a week in factories vulnerable to fires.

Union leader Shahidul Islam Sabuj threatened to continue the protests until wages are increased. "US$100 is the minimum we have asked for. A worker needs much more than that to lead a decent life," he said.

Thousands of workers, many carrying sticks, blocked roads between the capital and the northern and western region, disrupting traffic for hours.

"Prices of all commodities have spiked, but there is no change to our salaries for years," said a protesting worker in Savar, where April's disaster occurred.

"We won't leave the streets unless we are paid a minimum 8,000 [taka] per month," he said.

In Savar, more than a dozen factories were shut down as protesters clashed with police, leaving around 20 people injured.

"Workers attacked our factories and set ablaze at least two plants. Hundreds of factories were forced to shut down," said Reaz-Bin-Mahmood, vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, which represents 4,500 factories.

Impoverished Bangladesh is the world's second-largest garment exporter, with apparel shipments accounting for 80 per cent of its US$27 billion annual exports.

In June the government set up a panel to review salaries, but factory owners have rejected union demands for the US$100 monthly wage. They say they can only raise wages by 20 per cent to 3,600 taka due to gloomy global economic conditions.

Shahjahan Khan, a senior government minister, called for calm and urged the protesters to return to work. He was speaking after meeting representatives of manufacturers and unions to discuss the protests.