Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Bangladesh workers on warpath over low wages

The fresh round of low-wage protests in Bangladesh garment industry was not unpredictable. For years, Bangladesh has had the lowest minimum wage on earth. This attracted multinational clothing brands to flock to the country to enjoy low production cost.

But garment manufacturing is more than just an industry in Bangladesh. The garment industry is the largest employer in the impoverished nation and accounts for over 80% of the export earnings totalling over $12 billion a year.

Though there are 400 garment factories in Bangladesh, a good chunk of them is owned by politically influential families. As a result, the minimum wage stayed the same for 12 years until 2006 when the wage was revised, only after months of violent labour protests threatened the future of the industry.

But the 2006 raise -revised from Taka 900 ($13) to Taka 1662 ($23) a month- was much below what the workers asked for and many factory owners took a long time to implement the new wage.

Sporadic labour protests have continued since then. Five years on, the same scene is being replayed. The government has revised the monthly minimum wage to 3000 Taka ($43) only after workers resorted to violence by burning down factories and vehicles. The increase is significantly lower than the 5000 Taka ($71) demanded by the labour groups.

Even at 5000 Taka a month, the minimum wage will still be the one of the lowest in the world.

Retail brands though recognise the labour risk of low wage in Bangladesh, they have been frustratingly slow to find a solution. The popular excuse is that the wage is set by the government and therefore it is for the government to address the issue.

But the low wage is the very reason these brands love Bangladesh. Many of them will be the first to flee the country if wages are increased. This very fear discourages the government to raise wage levels.

The labour protests in the meanwhile have turned violent again. A large number of factories are shut down. Workers have learnt that violence is the only language the industry association and the government understands. This does not reflect good on retail brands' corporate responsibility claims.

Here are some of the local stories on the ongoing labour violence:

RMG sector still in grip of violence

Sunday's tripartite meeting 'a farce'

Thousands of workers continue protests

Business leaders for stern action against RMG troublemakers

And here is a video

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