Relatives of victims in the April 24 Rana Plaza garment building collapse display photographs of their loved ones as they gather to pay tributes at the venue of the tragedy at Savar, outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Oct. 24.Suvra Kanti Das/AP
Bangladesh's official wage board proposed a 77 percent raise in the minimum wage for garment workers on Monday, after a string of fatal factory accidents this year thrust poor pay and conditions into the international spotlight.
The world's second-largest clothing exporter hopes to announce a new minimum wage this month, after garment factory staff went on strike over wages for six days in September. The strike, which followed similar protests over the summer, halted production at almost 20 percent of the country's 3,200 factories.
A recently formed government wage board proposed a rise in monthly pay to 5,300 taka ($68), but factory bosses have not yet agreed to a rise above 4,200 taka ($54).
"The board proposed this amount considering the present reality both from the point of owners and workers," board chairman A.K. Roy told reporters. The proposal will go to the Ministry of Labor and Employment for review.
The wage negotiations must somehow strike a balance between Western fashion giants, politically connected factory owners and protesting staff, with the government's eye on elections due to be held by January.
The government did not respond to strikes over wages last year, but since then accidents, including the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex near Dhaka that killed more than 1,100 garment workers, have put the authorities on the back foot.
"We will urge the owners to implement it without any opposition, otherwise there will be a deadlock in the sector," said Sirajul Islam Rony, a workers' representative on the board.
But Arshad Jamal Dipu, a representative of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said a 77 percent rise was too high.
"We will appeal to the government to consider our ability, and it should not take any decision out of emotion or political benefit," he told Reuters.
The present minimum monthly wage for garment workers is around half those in rival Asian exporters Vietnam and Cambodia and just over a quarter of the rate in top exporter China, according to International Labor Organization data from August.
Reports that the government has failed to ensure humane working conditions in factories have exacerbated wage grievances and contributed to widespread unrest in Bangladesh.
In recent weeks, the country has seen violent protests demanding the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down ahead of elections.
Two people died and scores more were injured on Monday as protestors set off homemade bombs and torched cars during an opposition strike.
A similar protest last week resulted in 16 deaths.