Violence Erupts as Bangladesh Prepares to Announce New Minimum Wage

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Dhaka: Unrest in Bangladesh is escalating as thousands of workers set a bus on fire outside the capital, Dhaka, on Tuesday. This surge in protests comes ahead of an anticipated announcement of a new minimum wage for millions of garment laborers in the country.

The garment industry in Bangladesh is a cornerstone of the nation’s economy, with approximately 3,500 factories accounting for around 85 percent of the country’s annual exports, valued at $55 billion.

These factories supply some of the world’s leading fashion brands, including Levi’s, Zara, and H&M.

However, the situation for many of the sector’s four million workers, the majority of whom are women, is dire. Their monthly wages start at a meager 8,300 taka (approximately $75).

In response to these conditions, workers have gone on strike to demand a nearly threefold increase in their wages. The protests have turned violent in recent days, with employers offering only a 25 percent wage increase.

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The state-appointed minimum wage board panel, comprising representatives from manufacturers, unions, and wage experts, was scheduled to announce a new pay level on Tuesday.

Violence erupted in the industrial city of Gazipur as approximately 6,000 workers walked out of their plants and staged protests. The unrest was triggered by rumors that authorities were considering raising their wages to only around half of what the workers demanded.

Police in Gazipur fired tear gas to disperse the protesters who had set a bus on fire. Reports suggest that the workers reacted angrily to “fake news” circulating on social media, which claimed that union leaders had been arrested and that the panel would set the minimum wage at 12,000 taka ($108) instead of the 23,000 taka ($208) that the laborers were seeking.

Kalpona Akter, the head of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, emphasized that the manufacturers’ proposal should begin at over 15,000 taka.

The minimum wage panel typically convenes every five years. In 2018, it increased the basic minimum wage from 5,000 taka to 8,000 taka. Additionally, garment workers receive a monthly attendance fee of at least 300 taka.

Unions argue that their members have been significantly affected by ongoing inflation, which reached nearly 10 percent in October, as well as a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by the taka’s depreciation of about 30 percent against the US dollar since early last year.

The ongoing protests have taken a toll on the garment industry, resulting in the closure of approximately 600 factories that produce clothing for major Western brands. In the past week, several factories were vandalized, four were set on fire, and at least two workers lost their lives in the violence. Tens of thousands of workers, including women, blocked highways and targeted factories.

These labor protests have coincided with separate demonstrations by opposition parties, which are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ahead of the upcoming elections scheduled for January.

Ammara Ahmed

Ammara Ahmed

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