DHAKA, Bangladesh — Hundreds of factories remain closed in Bangladesh as garment workers continue to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions in the apparel manufacturing industry. Bangladesh is the world’s second largest apparel exporter and earns more than $20 billion a year manufacturing and exporting cheap garments to the United States and Europe. Workers are demanding that the monthly minimum wage–currently the lowest in the world–be raised from $38 per month to $100. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, workers in Bangladesh earn only 14 percent of what would be considered a living wage.
Factory owners claim that they cannot afford to raise wages because western brands such as Wal-Mart and Gap, Inc. are not willing to pay higher prices due to global competition and the ongoing economic crisis in the West. Labor leaders disagree. “I think it is kind of a country’s strategy to keep wages low to compete with international market…it is kind of that profit greed which is the main resistance,” said Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity.
Earlier this year, more than 1,100 workers died after a factory collapsed in Rana Plaza. The collapse–one of the world’s worst industrial disasters–prompted officials from apparel companies to discuss improving working conditions in the factories where their products are made. But these ongoing discussions have not addressed the most glaring concerns of the workers and labor leaders–wages and the rising cost of living.
After the Rana Plaza collapse, the government did enact laws that made it easier for workers to organize and join unions. The law also requires companies to contribute 5 percent of profits into worker welfare funds, which are designed to improve worker’s living conditions. Despite the new laws, activists and labor organizers claim that workers trying to register unions are being harassed and threatened by management. Other workers are being intimidated by having their production targets upped or their pay docked.
But the garment workers remain resolved, taking their protestations to the streets where they have blocked highways and disrupted traffic. The government has established a panel to review the minimum wage and workers’ cost of living, but the panel will not release its recommendations until November. Also, more than 80 worldwide brands have signed on to a legally binding building safety agreement, which will require independent factory inspections and new fire safety measures.
How the situation evolves will largely depend on the government’s willingness to increase the minimum wage, enforce the laws that allow workers to organize and make a more concerted effort to improve safety conditions.
– Daniel Bonasso