For two weeks, tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh have been on strike over their wages and working conditions. Bangladeshi garment manufacturers closed 150 factories "indefinitely" on Saturday as police launched charges against 11,000 workers in connection with violent protests demanding a higher minimum wage.
Bangladesh's 3,500 garment factories account for about 85 percent of its $55 billion in annual exports, supplying many major global brands, including Levi's, Zara and H&M. But working conditions are dire for many of the sector's four million workers, the vast majority of whom are women whose monthly salary, until recently, started at 8,300 taka ($75).
Violent protests demanding better wages erupted last month, with at least three workers killed and more than 70 factories ransacked or damaged since then, according to police.
A government-appointed commission on Tuesday increased the sector's wage by 56.25%, but garment workers rejected the hike, demanding instead a minimum wage of 23,000 taka. “Their proposal is unacceptable. It falls short of our expectations,” said Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Industrial and Garment Workers' Federation. On Thursday, November 9, 25,000 workers clashed with police on a highway and ransacked Tusuka, a prominent factory, along with a dozen other factories.
Bangladeshi police have a habit of charging thousands of people – without specifying their names – following large protests. Human rights groups have previously warned that such mass prosecutions of thousands of unidentified people give police license to target innocent protesters. These protests pose a major challenge to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 2009.
Police said 150 factories had closed in the main industrial towns of Ashulia and Gazipur, both north of the capital, as manufacturers feared further strikes early next week. Ashulia is home to some of the largest factories in Bangladesh, some employing up to 15,000 workers in a single factory. On Thursday, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at around 10,000 workers in Ashulia as they attacked officers and factories with bricks and stones. At least 20 factories were also closed in Gazipur, which is the largest industrial area in the country.
On Saturday, November 10, ready-to-wear workers organized demonstrations in the press club district of the capital, rejecting the proposed minimum wage. The Front Garments Sramik took out a procession from Paltan Mor around 10:45 am. Later, another organization – Bangladesh OSK Garments and Textile Sramik Federation – took out a procession from Purana Paltan area around 11 am. The protesters demanded justice for their three colleagues – Anjuara, Rasel and Imran killed by the police.