Hopes that recent concessions by factory owners would quell cascading violence in Bangladesh over a longstanding wage dispute were dashed this weekend when the managing director of an apparel company was kidnapped for twelve hours. According to law enforcement authorities, the executive’s captors demanded salary increases and severance payments.
Delwar Hussein, of the Tuba Group in Dhaka, was released unharmed. However, some workers are still holding his brother-in-law hostage and one unnamed factory manager.
Factory owners and union groups have clashed acrimoniously in recent months over the heated issue of wages. Bangladesh convened a meeting of the Minimum Wage Board, comprised of labor union representatives, governmental bureaucrats and factory owner representatives. Arshad Jamal Dipu, speaking on behalf of factory owners, proposed a minimum wage increase of no more than 20 percent, an increase of Tk 600 to Tk 3,600. Dipu said this number was the result of calculating several variables, including the costs of living and daily calorie consumption for workers.
Dipu’s proposal starkly contrasts with what factory workers have demanded. Sirajul Islam Rony, a labor leader also on the Minimum Wage Board, angrily called Dipu’s calculations “illogical and inhuman.” He recommended a new minimum wage of Tk 8,114 per month, a 170.5% increase from the current level. He said, “I urged the owners to reconsider the proposal as it is too low from our demand.”
The dispute between labor representatives and factory owners has been brewing ever since the Minimum Wage Board was assembled and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina assured workers their salaries would be increased.
Historically, a wage board assembles every five years to revisit the issue of compensation for workers. Given the ferment surrounding labor conditions in Bangladesh, especially in the still hot contrails of the Rana Plaza tragedy, the government decided it would be prudent to meet earlier than scheduled.
Recently, factory owners have assumed a noticeably more conciliatory posture. Atiqul Islam, head of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said, “We told the unions that we’ll hike wages for all workers as soon as new minimum wages are announced by the government panel. We are also ready to hike wages as much as the panel determines. We will accept even if it is more than 20 per cent. But obviously our hope is that the enhanced wages will be win-win for the industry and the workers.”
But tensions continue to simmer as progress comes at a slow leak. Workers at the Tuba factory complained that management has shuttered one of the factories without any advance notice and refused to pay back wages. Tuba owns twelve factories, including Tazreens Fashions Ltd., the factory that was consumed by a fire last November, killing more than 100 workers.