Bangladesh has been roiled by violence as garment workers continue to angrily protest a government board’s proposed minimum wage. Now more than 100 factories have closed to avoid the throngs of embittered workers. At least one man died Sunday, bringing the death toll over the last two weeks amidst similar protests to at least nineteen.
The recommendation by the ad hoc Wage Board was meant to quell simmering tensions but ignited them instead. The panel decided to increase the minimum wage to about 5,300 takas ($68) per month, a 77 percent increase from the previous benchmark of 3,000 takas ($38).
The demonstrations on Sunday were the first of four days of planned protest. Some reports indicate that an overwhelmed police force had to enlist the help of the military to control crowds that had become unmanageable. More than 200 vehicles have been destroyed by vandals. Police officials attempted to downplay the mounting chaos.
“The situation is under control now, but there is no chance to resume work in factories today (Monday),” said Mustafizur Rahman, director of police.
Opposition leaders are calling for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, demanding that a caretaker government be convened int he temporary absence of leadership. Authorities took five of the most prominent leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party into custody this weekend.
There are growing concerns that the violence will undermine the garment manufacturing business, upon which the entirety of Bangladesh’s economy precariously depends. S. M. Mannan, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said, “We are facing huge trouble. How will we do our business if such chaos continues? We have to confirm our shipment, we have to pay our workers, but nobody is caring about that.”
The Ministry of Labor still has to approve what only amounts to a non-binding recommendation. Kalpona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a non-governmental activist group that represents workers, has already voiced complaints that the wages will still be the lowest in the world. Also, Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, also made clear that his organization has yet to accept the wage increase.
Atiqul Islam, president of the BGMEA, expressed hopes that a final meeting scheduled for November 11, involving both the labor and employment minister, will reach a conclusive resolution. “We are expecting a decision from the government in the meeting,” he said.
Islam also confided that he was skeptical the current recommendation from the Wage Board of a minimum wage of 5,300 takas a month (approximately $68) was realistically implementable. “We need a win-win situation. The board has imposed the recommendation on us–the industry will not be able to sustain the recommended salary structure.”
But labor representatives have argued that the recommendation must be accepted. Sirajul Islam Rony, the workers’ representative on the Wage Board, said, “They should just accept it. The minimum wage would have to be raised at some point-be it today or tomorrow.”
Witnesses say that the man who died Sunday was pulled from a rickshaw by protesters in the southeastern district of Chittagong.