An unprecedented uprising. Thousands of garment workers vandalized factories in Bangladesh on Monday demanding a hike in the minimum wage, according to union officials and police who responded with tear gas. The South Asian country is one of the world's largest clothing exporters, but working conditions for many workers there are very poor.
At least 10,000 workers walked off the job and demonstrated in the industrial city of Gazipur, and another 7,000 took to the streets in Ashulia and Hemayetpur, all close to the capital Dhaka, police said. The head of the Ashulia region's garment union, Mohammad Ibrahim, disputed the figures and estimated the protesters at least 100,000 in total.
“Protesters vandalized factories and tried to force workers to join them,” said Sarwar Alam, police chief of the industrial zone in Gazipur, adding that at least 40 factories were damaged. Protesters broke windows and damaged furniture. “We fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the workers,” the official said.
Bangladesh is home to some 3,500 textile factories but the basic monthly salary for workers is only 8,300 takas ($75). Protests broke out this weekend after the powerful textile manufacturers' organization proposed a 25% increase in the minimum wage, while unions demanded a near tripling of the minimum wage to 23,000 takas ($208).
The textile industry represents 85% of the country's $55 billion in annual exports and has contributed significantly to the population's income growth. But the wage protests constitute a major challenge for the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in power for around fifteen years. “Workers have been hit hard by the cost of living crisis,” said Taslima Akter, president of the Garment Sramik Samhati union.
Due to inflation and the depreciation of the local currency, workers would earn less in real terms than they received in 2017 with the proposed increase, she noted. Major brands, including Gap, Levi Strauss, Lululemon and Patagonia, wrote to the government earlier this month demanding a satisfactory outcome to wage negotiations so that they ensure “the basic needs of workers” and additional income.