Thousands demand higher wages in Bangladesh factory protest

Garment workers rally for a living wage; police fire rubber bullets and use tear gas to disperse crowds

Bangladeshi garment workers shout slogans during a protest in Dhaka on Sept. 23, 2013.
Munir uz Zaman/AFP/Getty

Tens of thousands of garment factory workers in Bangladesh protested for the third day in a row Monday, calling on their government to raise the minimum wage from about $38 dollars per month to $100.

The protests forced the shutdown of hundreds of factories in the industrial Gazipur neighborhood near the capital, Dhaka, where factory owners and government officials called for workers to return to work.

"We need to run our factories. We demand authorities ensure security to continue production," S.M. Mannan, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told The Associated Press after meeting with a cabinet minister and workers' representatives.

Western corporations that rely on Bangladeshi labor to make much of the clothing sold in their stores, including Wal-Mart, Gap and Macy's, appeared reluctant to comment publicly on the protests -- decisions that were criticized by labor-rights activists.

"If the corporations were to send a clear message that they are willing to pay higher prices to manufacturers so they can pay higher wages to workers, that could have a real influence on negotiations," said Liana Foxvog, director of organizing at the International Labor Rights Forum, a U.S.-based group that advocates for workers in countries like Bangladesh.

But that's unlikely to happen, Foxvog said.

The relationship among popular U.S. brands, the Bangladeshi government and a complex web of suppliers and factory owners has barely changed since Rana Plaza, a factory with lax safety standards, collapsed in April and killed more than 1,100 people, she said.

Several European manufacturers have agreed to establish a compensation fund for victims of the collapse, but no U.S.-based companies have signed on. Instead, Wal-Mart and other retailers created their own initiative for Bangladeshi worker safety, but it's not legally binding, and many labor-rights activists aren't sure what will come of it.

"It's mainly a face-lift of the corporate-controlled efforts that have failed Bangladeshi workers in the past," said Foxvog.

The protests on Monday were focused on the minimum wage, but Foxvog believes that workers' anger over conditions has intensified in Bangladesh because of April's tragedy.

On Monday, thousands of workers took to the streets, clashed with police and even set some factories ablaze to protest the BGMEA's suggestion that the minimum wage could be raised by only $7.75 a month because of a weak economy.

Bangladesh is one of the cheapest places in the world to manufacture clothes, which account for 80 percent of its exports. The monthly minimum wage in Bangladesh was almost half of today's rate until 2010, when similar protests forced the government to raise it. But wages are still lower than in most other countries where clothing is manufactured, and garment laborers often work up to 80 hours per week.

"One hundred dollars is the minimum we have asked for," said union leader Shahidul Islam Sabuj. "A worker needs much more than that to lead a decent life."

Abdul Baten, police chief of the Gazipur industrial district, told AFP that "up to 200,000 workers" had joined the latest demonstrations.

"The situation is extremely volatile," deputy police chief Mustafizur Rahman told AFP. "Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the unruly workers."

While the government has yet to publicly announce a decision on wages, it has a vested interest in keeping them low. Many ministers in Bangladesh's parliament own factories, according to Foxvog.

With the country's economy so dependent on foreign corporations, she said workers' best hope might be if companies take the lead and increase wages without a mandate from the government.

Wal-Mart, Gap and Macy's did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.

Peter Moskowitz contributed to this report, with wire services

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