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Protesting Bangladesh Workers Get Wage Increase but Tensions Remain

Following a week of violent demonstrations for higher salaries, the government of Bangladesh has agreed to raise garment workers’ wages, the country’s commerce minister said.

The protests, which included clashes with police involving rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons, and resulted in the death of one worker and injuries of dozens more, prompted officials to convene a panel with factory owners and union leaders to consider the demand for increased pay.

All parties involved have agreed to raise wages across six of the seven pay grades, though the minimum wage itself will remain unchanged at 8,000 taka ($95), Tipu Munshi, a former president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told reporters after a meeting of the panel Sunday.

The revised wages are effective from December and will be adjusted from January, he added, urging for a restoration of normalcy.

“Most of the workers do not want vandalism. They want to work. They don’t want their factories are closed,” he said. “I hope they will join work peacefully.”

Earlier on Sunday, Siddiqur Rahman, the current president of the BGMEA, threatened to suspend workers’ pay if they did not return to work, Reuters reported.

“If you don’t return to your work by tomorrow, you will not be paid any wages and we will shut down factories for an indefinite period,” Rahman said. “Despite repeated assurance of meeting the demands, the workers are being incited to create unrest. We will not allow this anymore.”

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Bangladeshi officials had announced in September that the minimum wage for garment workers would step up by 51 percent in 2019 from 5,300 taka ($63) to 8,000 taka ($95) per month, marking the first significant increase since 2013.

But union leaders say the increase will benefit only a small percentage of workers. And Shefali Begum, a protesting worker, told the Associated Press last Tuesday that workers want at least 16,000 taka ($191) per month. “They give us nothing,” he said. “Right now, our salaries are the same as for helpers hired to assist us.”

Labor activists continue to look askance at the 8,000-taka minimum wage.

“The declaration of minimum wage of 8,000 taka totally failed to fulfill the expectations of the workers and workers’ organizations,” Shapon Salauddin, secretary general of the IndustriAll Bangladesh Council (IBC), said in a statement.

Similarly, Ineke Zeldenrust, international director of the Clean Clothes Campaign, branded the new minimum wage “outrageous.”

“As we have done all along, we are fully backing the demand for 16,000 taka that the IBC had clearly communicated to the Minimum Wage Board, and support them in requesting an immediate review given that the wage board process was deeply compromised,” she said, noting that both the government of Bangladesh and employers have failed to engage in a bargaining process conducted in “good faith” and based on respect for freedom of association.

The Bangladesh arm of the International Labour Organisation, on the other hand, has praised the Bangladesh’s government for revisiting the minimum wage.

“We acknowledge the genuine efforts of all parties, led by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, to work towards setting minimum wages at an appropriate level and to reach a consensus,” said Tuomo Poutiainen, ILO country director for Bangladesh, on Monday. “Through this tripartite process of dialogue, confidence is being built and we call upon all parties to help the industry resume its activity.”

Bangladesh’s $30 billion garment sector employs 4 million people and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings. The second-largest garment exporter after China, Bangladesh produces clothing for some of the biggest retailers in the world, including H&M, Uniqlo and Zara.