Bangladesh strikes: thou­sands of gar­ment work­ers clash with po­lice over poor pay

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / Finance - Agence France-Presse

Thou­sands of gar­ment work­ers in Bangladesh who make clothes for top global brands have clashed with po­lice as strike ac­tion over low wages en­tered a sec­ond week.

Po­lice said water can­non and tear gas were fired on Sun­day to dis­perse huge crowds of strik­ing fac­tory work­ers in Savar, a gar­ment hub just out­side the cap­i­tal, Dhaka.

“The work­ers bar­ri­caded the high­way. We had to drive them away to ease traf­fic con­di­tions,” said po­lice di­rec­tor Sana Shaminur Rah­man. “So far 52 fac­to­ries, in­clud­ing some big ones, have shut down op­er­a­tions due to the protests.”

On Tues­day, one worker was killed when po­lice fired rub­ber bul­lets and tear gas at 5,000 protest­ing work­ers.

Bangladesh is de­pen­dent on gar­ments stitched by mil­lions of low-paid tai­lors on fac­tory floors across the emerg­ing south Asia econ­omy of 165 mil­lion peo­ple.

Roughly 80% of its ex­port earn­ings come from cloth­ing sales abroad, with global re­tail­ers H&M, Pri­mark, Wal­mart, Tesco and Aldi among the main buy­ers.

Union leader Aminul Is­lam blamed fac­tory own­ers for re­sort­ing to vi­o­lence to con­trol strik­ing work­ers. “But they are more united than ever,” he told AFP. “It doesn’t seem like they will leave the streets, un­til their de­mands are met.”

The protests are the first ma­jor test for prime min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina since win­ning a fourth term in last month’s elec­tions, which were marred by vi­o­lence, thou­sands of ar­rests and al­le­ga­tions of vote rig­ging and in­tim­i­da­tion.

Late on Sun­day, the gov­ern­ment an­nounced a pay rise for mid-level fac­tory work­ers af­ter meet­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers and unions. Not all unions have sig­nalled they will up­hold the agree­ment.

Babul Akhter, a union leader present at the meet­ing, said the deal should ap­pease strik­ing work­ers. “They should not re­ject it, and peace­fully re­turn to work,” he said.

Min­i­mum wages for the low­est-paid gar­ment work­ers rose by a lit­tle over 50% this month to 8,000 taka ($95) a

month. But mid-level tai­lors said their rise was pal­try and failed to re­flect the ris­ing costs of liv­ing, es­pe­cially in hous­ing.

Bangladesh’s 4,500 tex­tile and cloth­ing fac­to­ries shipped more than $30bn worth of ap­parel last year.

The Bangladesh Gar­ment Man­u­fac­tur­ers and Ex­porters’ As­so­ci­a­tion, which wields huge po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence, warned all fac­to­ries might shut if tai­lors did not re­turn to work im­me­di­ately. “We may fol­low the ‘no work, no pay’ the­ory, ac­cord­ing to the labour law,” as­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Sid­dikur Rah­man told re­porters.

Last year Bangladesh was the sec­ond-largest global ap­parel ex­porter af­ter China. It has plans to ex­pand the sec­tor into a $50bn-a-year in­dus­try by 2023.

But de­spite their role in trans­form­ing the im­pov­er­ished na­tion into a ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ing hub, gar­ment work­ers re­main some of the low­est paid in the world.

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