Bangladesh’s government announced on Tuesday it would raise the minimum monthly wage for its four million garment workers by 56.25 percent, a decision that was immediately rejected by unions seeking to nearly triple the number.
The country’s garment factories make up about 85% of its $55 billion in annual exports, supplying some of the world’s top fashion brands such as Levi’s, Zara and H&M. However, conditions for many of the workers are miserable, with the vast majority being women whose monthly pay starts at 8,300 taka ($75).
In response to low wages, workers have gone on strike to demand a near tripling of wages, leading to recent violent clashes. Employers had initially proposed a 25% increase in wages. The minimum wage is set by a state-appointed board that includes representatives of manufacturers, unions and wage experts.
The board’s secretary, Raisha Afroz, announced that the new minimum monthly wage for garment factory workers had been set at 12,500 taka ($113). However, this figure was immediately rejected by the unions, who demanded a minimum wage of 23,000 taka.
Unions say their members have been hit hard by persistent inflation, which hit nearly 10 percent in October, and a cost-of-living crisis partly triggered by the taka’s roughly 30 percent devaluation against the U.S. dollar since the beginning of last year.
Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, called the decision “unacceptable” and “below our expectations”.
The committee responsible for setting the minimum wage usually meets every five years and in 2018 raised the basic minimum from 5,000 taka to 8,000 taka. Apart from the basic minimum wage, garment workers also get at least 300 taka per month as attendance pay.
Tensions surrounding this decision led to violence, with police firing tear gas at thousands of workers who set fire to a bus outside Dhaka. Last week, around 600 factories producing clothes for major Western brands were closed and some looted as part of the worst wage protest in a decade.
The demonstrations also coincided with violent demonstrations by opposition parties demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ahead of elections scheduled for January.
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