Textile workers in Bangladesh are rising up. Since last week, thousands of workers have been taking to the streets to demand an increase in the minimum wage from 8,300 takas (70 euros) to 23,000 takas (190 euros), or almost three times more. According to police in Gazipur, located 50 km from the capital, Dhaka, nearly 250 garment factories closed after violent protests. Dozens of them were reportedly ransacked and vandalized.
“ How can we get through the month when we already have to shell out 5,000 to 6,000 takas just for the rent of a one-room house? », Exults a demonstrator to AFP. “Wages can no longer cover rising food costs,” adds Al Kamran, a union leader in the industrial city of Ashulia, in the center of the country, where some 15,000 people took to the streets. Inflation weighs heavily on the population. A kilo of potatoes now sells for 70 takas and 1 kilo of onions for 130 takas, compared to 30 and 50 takas respectively last year.
The world's second largest clothing exporter behind China, Bangladesh has 3,500 factories and 4 million workers. Suppliers to large Western companies, such as Gap, H
Workers' anger exploded after the powerful Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), representing factory owners, proposed a pay increase of just 25 percent. “With, at the head of the association, ministers, themselves factory owners,” underlines Salma Lamqaddam, campaigner at the NGO Action Aid. Behind the wage increases lies the tough competition with the Chinese rival - the minimum wage rising to 200 euros in the Middle Kingdom. The impressive figures of the textile industry hide the extreme harshness of the working conditions of a historically overexploited workforce. The minimum wage is one of the lowest in the world in Bangladesh for the sector, despite increases over the years following strong mobilizations, in 2006, 2016, or 2018.
To meet the growing demand for textile products, workers face weeks “around 65 hours to 72 hours of work,” according to Salma Lamqaddam. Factories are regularly criticized for being dangerous, as evidenced by the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, which cost the lives of 1,100 people. Beyond fires and building collapses which are constant threats, many workers are exposed to harmful chemical risks and without adequate protection, decry the unions, which have only very moderate influence. The movement is not without connection with the political context. The opposition party is accused of fueling protests at a time when violent anti-government rallies are shaking the country, ahead of elections scheduled for the end of January.