by Eugene Walker
I despise every moment at the factory because of the harsh conditions and harassment, but with rising inflation the wage I earn is insufficient. Many times, I’ve had to sneak into fields on my way home from work to hunt for vegetables to feed my children. Starvation is next.
—Rojina Akter, protesting worker
The leggings I make retail for more than my entire month’s salary. To us, it is clear that there are huge profits being made on our backs. Even the 23,000 taka (about $200) we are asking for wouldn’t be enough, but it would offer some kind of relief. Why should my children go hungry?
—Garment worker, name withheld
When, after months of so-called negotiations, the Bangladesh government issued a new proposed wage of $113 per month in place of the previous $80, garment workers poured out of factories in Dhaka and other cities to demand a wage of about $200 a month as against the near starvation wages they have lived with, and which the government and factory owners wished to continue. Tens of thousands marched in the streets and blocked them, closed down some 100 factories, and set fire to buses. Several garment workers’ unions were involved.
The police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Workers also clashed with an elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and police in other areas, at Konabari and Naujore in Gazipur. They used batons and tear gas to drive protesters into alleys. The authoritarian prime minister Sheikh Hasina threatened protesting workers: “Garment workers should remember that if they damage factories, they may have to return to their villages and live without employment.”
Low wages have characterized Bangladesh’s garment industry from its beginning. Today more than 3,500 factories, supplying brands such as Levi’s, Zara, H&M and the GAP, employ some four million workers. Bangladesh is the second largest garment-producing country in the world after China.
MAJOR CLOTHING BRANDS AT FAULT
The majority of the workers are women. Trade unionist Nazma Akhter spoke directly to the responsibility of the fashion brands—the ones who order the garments to be produced and pay the factory owners for the products. She spoke passionately: “Global fashion brands must also speak out, What use is all their talk of female empowerment when the women who make their clothes are being murdered on the streets?”
Thulsi Narayanasamy of the Workers Rights Consortium noted: “Brands have the power and the leverage to play a crucial role in these negotiations but they are failing to do this. It’s easy to say that you support a higher minimum wage and workers being paid a living wage, but without concrete action—and by this we mean actually paying the factories and the workers what it costs to make clothing that is being sold for enormous profits—then it is all meaningless.”
The struggle continues. Trade unionist Akhter is clear: “We call on the prime minister to step in and stop the police brutality immediately. The proposed new wage is unacceptable. We reject it and demand a revision.”
The post World in View: Garment workers protest in Bangladesh appeared first on News and Letters Committees.