Protests erupt across Bangladesh amid continued underpayment and maltreatment of garment workers

Protests erupt across Bangladesh amid continued underpayment and maltreatment of garment workers
Courtesy: France 24

Industry-wide ferocious strikes and protests continue this week in Bangladesh after workers demand for a wage increase were rejected at the newly formed Minimum Wage Board for Garment workers meeting on October 22. Current wages, on average, stand at TK 8 000 equating to £58 pcm, whilst workers are demanding a raise: TK 23 000, roughly £170. Garment factory owners only conceded raising to TK 10 000, just £73 per month, well below the value asked for. 

 

In the ensuing protests, a 25-year old technician, Rasel Hawlader was murdered after being shot twice, reportedly by the police (a second protestor has also been killed, reports indicate, though the circumstances are as yet unclear). Trade Union leaders have cited this incident as an integral moment in the acceleration of the protests. Police have used tear gas, rubber ammunition, and live rounds whilst trying to quell striking workers. 

 

Since, strikes have sprung up in most industrial areas, protestors have blocked roads, set fire to vehicles, and vandalised factories. Roughly 300 garment factories have closed and, under Section 13(1) of the Labour Act, employers have refused to pay workers. 

 

Meanwhile, the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) have urged garment factory owners to file police cases against all persons involved in vandalism and other aspects of protest. BGMEA President, Faruque Hassan “urge[s] workers not to do anything that tarnishes the image of the industry and destroys buyer confidence. If buyers turn away from the industry, the country will suffer and you will become unemployed”. 

 

impACT, whilst recognising the work that the BGMEA has done to establish some benefits for garment workers, like the building of 12 health centres, suggests statements like these negate the reality of life for workers. Those who own the factories have hugely profited from the overworking, maltreatment, suffering and even deaths of working people across the country.

 

Bangladesh ranks among the top 10 worst countries in the world for labour rights. It is widely known that Bangladeshi garment factories are incredibly difficult places to work. On 24 April this year, 10 years had passed since the devastating Rana Plaza disaster, where 1 134 people died and 2 000 were injured after the factory in Dhaka (which made clothes for Primark, Bonmarché and Loblaw) collapsed due to major structural issues, after neglect from its owners. Though the owner is currently imprisoned for the murder of those who died, labour rights are still largely neglected in Bangladesh. 

 

Beyond meagre wages, (reportedly the lowest in the world), labour abuses are rife. Reports from people who’ve worked within these factories reveal a plethora of abuses, including both emotional and physical abuse. Many reports indicate that management regularly “slap and beat workers”, as workers fail to meet the absurd output goals set, in rooms where there “was not enough light and air”. These issues were compounded by the COVID pandemic, with “about 205 workers working on the same floor with no partition” there are no safety measures whatsoever. 

 

According to Mr Hassan, the BGMEA held “general meetings with worker leaders” to prevent further escalation of the ongoing strikes, and suggested that the organisation was committed to increasing salaries. However, with the organisation endorsing the meagre TK 2 000 raise the BGMEA are quite clearly siding with ownership. impACT suggests that if the BGMEA and factory owners really want to create a better image of the garment industry as stated by Mr Hassan, they should be more realistic with their proposals at the Minimum Wage Board Meetings and provide, at minimum the demanded wage raises. 

 

Outbursts of such emotion and discontent are a clear reflection of the very well-documented poor treatment of garment workers in Bangladesh. Whilst impACT has suggested that employers must raise wages to levels acceptable to employees, retail companies, globally, must recognise their own contributions to oppressive labour regimes. 

 

It is far more profitable to take advantage of regions with exploited and abused working people, than to source materials from equitable working environments. In a report published by the University of Aberdeen in January 2023, it was reported that companies sourcing materials for UK retailers “pay below the cost of production according to a survey of 1 000 Bangladeshi manufacturers”. Further, over half of suppliers reported “experiencing unfair purchasing practices”, such as cancellations, delays and refusals with payments and discount demands. Interestingly, two thirds of contacted factories reported receiving some financial support from the Bangladeshi government or banks to remain afloat. This study not only illustrates the realities of western companies benefiting off of exploited working people, but also creating and maintaining environments rife with exploitation. So, companies like H&M, Primark and Zara, who publicly denounce poor treatment of garment workers have huge agency in their fair payment. 

 

impACT appeals to UK retailers like H&M, Zara and Primark to fairly pay its suppliers in a timely and efficient manner in order to create a healthier trade environment. Alongside humane treatment of workers, which includes adequate wage raises, this would surely foster fairer conditions for working people within the garment industry. 

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