More than 100 garment factories in Bangladesh had to close today as workers took to the streets of Dhaka for a third day of protests over pay.
According to Reuters, close to fifty people were injured, including some law enforcement officers, as police fired teargas and rubber bullets and workers pelted bricks in response.
Protests began Saturday when 50,000 garment industry workers staged their biggest demonstration to date to realize their wage hike demand, blocking a major highway, damaging vehicles and vandalizing factories.
Garment factory workers requested the minimum wage be raised to Taka 8,000 ($103) from its current Taka 3,000 ($39). There hasn’t been a wage increase since the Minimum Wage Board set the Taka 3,000 rate in 2010.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) had been working to set a fixed minimum wage and were in talks about raising the rate. They recently offered a 20 percent pay hike–the maximum rate factory owners had been pushing for–but workers rejected it. A 20 percent increase would not accommodate the rate of inflation since 2010.
“Our backs are against the wall, so we don’t have any alternative unless we raise our voice strongly,” Nazma Akter, president of the United Garments Workers’ Federation, which organizes 52 garment worker’s groups, told protestors, Reuters reported. “We are not the object of mercy, the economy moves with our toil,” he added.
Bangladesh relies heavily on the ready-made garment (RMG) industry, as it is the leader in terms of employment, production and foreign exchange earning for the country. BGMEA reports that the garment industry alone brings in roughly 78 percent of Bangladesh’s yearly foreign exchange earnings and employs four million people. Bangladesh exported nearly $20 billion RMG from FY 2011 — FY 2012.
The Rana Plaza factory collapse has put the Bangladeshi clothing industry under tough scrutiny over safety concerns. As a result, factories now face tougher compliance measures, which have increased production costs and owners fear a pay raise of more than 20 percent would cause their operations to suffer.
The US suspended Bangladesh’s duty-free trade benefits in June citing the country’s lack of progress toward ensuring workers’ rights and safety. Europe has threatened similar action if conditions don’t improve.
Labor leader Sirajul Islam Rony, president of Bangladesh National Garment Workers Employees League, told the WSJ the country could see more protests if workers’ demands aren’t met.
“The industry is the top foreign currency earner in the country, but the workers are not getting the benefits,” Rony said. “If the owners don’t listen to our demands, there will be more unrest in the garment sector.”