Protest by Bangladeshi garment workers shutters 100 factories

Demonstrators demand higher wages that employers say they can't afford; police fire rubber bullets, close factories

Bangladeshi activists and garment workers shout slogans during a protest demanding a minimum wage of $100 per month in the capital city of Dhaka on Nov. 8, 2013.
Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Thousands of Bangladeshi workers demanding a higher minimum wage on Monday hurled rocks and sticks at clothing factories and clashed with police who used rubber bullets and tear gas against them, bringing fresh scrutiny to working conditions in the country's garment industry.

The garment workers' demonstrations forced the closure of more than 100 factories in the Ashulia industrial belt on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of total garment exports.

At least 30 people were reported wounded in the clash with police.

The South Asian nation has seen three weeks of bloody political protests, and the demonstrations by garment workers only added to the chaos.

Bangladesh's official wage board proposed a 77 percent rise in the minimum wage for garment workers last week, up to the equivalent of $66.25 per month, after a string of fatal factory accidents this year thrust poor pay and conditions into the international spotlight.

But even with a raise, at $38, Bangladesh still has the lowest minimum wage in the world, which is about half that of rival Asian exporters Vietnam and Cambodia and just over a quarter of the rate in China, according to data from the International Labor Organization.

Bangladeshi workers have rejected the proposal, demanding $100 a month instead.

But factory owners said they could not afford 77 percent, and that it would increase their production cost significantly and destroy the industry in a fiercely competitive global market.

The Ministry of Labor would still have to approve the proposed amount to make it a law.

Bangladesh's garment industry has come under scrutiny for its often harsh and unsafe conditions after the collapse of a factory building killed more than 1,100 people in April. In another horrific case, a fire last November killed 112 workers.

As the world's second-largest garment manufacturing country after China, Bangladesh earns more than $20 billion a year from garment exports, mainly to the United States and Europe, an industry that serves as an economic lifeblood to the impoverished country of 160 million people. The sector employs about 4 million workers, mostly women.

Garment factory staff went on strike over wages for six days in September, hitting production at almost 20 percent of the country's 3,200 factories. The strikes followed similar protests over the summer.

The new protest coincided with a four-day nationwide strike led by the main opposition party demanding next year's election take place under a non-partisan government.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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