Union leaders are urging the Bangladesh government to reject an appeal by the country’s knitwear manufacturers to freeze a planned 5 percent hike in the minimum wage for garment workers for the next two years.
The increase, which would raise the monthly take-home pay from 8,000 taka ($94) to 8,400 taka ($99), is a “legitimate right of workers,” Nazma Akter, president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, a union that represents nearly 100,000 garment workers, wrote in a letter to the labor secretary Sunday. Many workers have lost their jobs since factories had to shut down production last March, she noted, and those who are still employed are receiving less overtime due to a fall off in work orders from Western brands and retailers, exacerbating their difficulties in making ends meet.
Akter also asked for a “risk allowance” for workers, since they’re performing what amounts to hazardous work at a time when the daily infection rate hovers just under 10 percent. The Directorate General of Health Services reported 910 new coronavirus cases and 24 new deaths on Monday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 516,929 and deaths past 7,600.
Salim Osman, president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), which represents most of the nation’s knitwear factories, wrote to the labor ministry last week to seek the wage-increase suspension. Because buyers are delaying payments from 180 to 200 days, he said, employers have had to take measures such as temporarily shutting production lines, laying off workers or reducing their wages and other benefits.
“It has become very difficult to pay workers their wages regularly due to the pandemic,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, it is not clear to any of us when the situation would be normal, while global buyers are not placing work orders as they are wary about the present situation.”
Mohammad Hatem, vice president of the BKMEA, told the Daily Star that these were extraordinary times—“the toughest time in the hundreds of years of history” of the industry, in fact. “Our orders are fewer and our buyers are making abnormal delays in payments but at the same time order cancellations have been taking place in the garment sector,” Hatem said.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, said, however, that factories should be strengthening worker protections, such as providing rice rations and transportation, not weakening them.
“Instead of taking such initiatives, the owners are proposing something illogical, unacceptable, illegal and shameful,” Amin told The Daily Star, threatening “tough movements” if an increment suspension came to pass.
Bangladesh Trade Union Centre general secretary Wajed-ul Islam Khan told New Age that BKMEA’s proposal of suspending the wage increase was “inhuman and unacceptable. While factory owners have received stimulus payments from the government, he added, the money has yet to trickle down to workers.
Babul Akhter, secretary general of IndustriAll Bangladesh Council, told New Age that factory owners were trying to benefit from the crisis, first by obtaining stimulus payments in the name of worker wages and now by stonewalling any wage increments.
“Workers are the worst sufferers of Covid-19 and the proposal made by factory owners to hold the yearly increment for two years is absolutely an anti-labor bid,” he said.
The news comes as a new report finds that Bangladesh garment factories are reverting to cash payments after a push to convert to worker-empowering digital wages seems to have sputtered.