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Vol. 74/No. 49      December 27, 2010

Bangladesh: Thousands
strike for higher wages
Thousands of garment workers from some of the 4,500 apparel factories in Bangladesh participated in protests beginning December 10 against companies' refusal to pay the new government minimum wage. Some 20,000 workers employed by manufacturers near Dhaka in central Bangladesh blocked the main roads into the Suhi Industrial Park, in effect shutting down production.

On December 12 four workers there were killed and more than 100 injured in clashes with police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.

The recent protests follow strikes and demonstrations that rocked Bangladesh in August, as garment workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage, one of the lowest in the world. Out of those actions the government agreed to raise the minimum wage to the equivalent of $43 per month. There had been no increase since 2006. The new amount, however, remains far below the country's extremely low poverty line.

The new minimum wage promised by the government was supposed to go into effect in November. Workers who are demonstrating say many bosses have still not implemented the change.

Shikdar Mesbahuddin Ahmed, a director of the Youngone garment company, complained to the press that the workers "became unruly and didn't wait for our decision" to raise wages.

Apparel manufacturers who have made fortunes off the labor of workers in Bangladesh—many who toil 10 hours a day, six days a week—say the increase in wages is "too heavy" and that they are being “crushed by global turmoil" in the industry.

Garment production accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports. More than 3 million workers, 85 percent of them women, produce clothing for stores such as Wal-Mart, H&M, Gap, JCPenny, Tommy Hilfiger, and Levi Strauss.

The government and garment manufacturers have a history of targeting labor leaders and cracking down on strikes and protests. The country's home minister, Sahara Kahtoon, told Al Jazeera that the recent demonstrations were part of a conspiracy to destabilize Bangladesh's export sector. "We will find out the conspirators and give them exemplary punishment," she said.

An example of the disastrous conditions faced by garment workers in Bangladesh is the fire in a garment factory just north of Dhaka on December 14 that killed at least 25 people and injured more than 100.

The 10-story building employs 5,000 workers who make pants for export to the United States and Europe. The death toll would have been higher except most workers at the time were outside for lunch.

While the cause of the blaze is unknown, stacks of garments in factories can easily catch fire. In addition, some factory owners have been known to lock exit doors to prevent workers from leaving their machines. In February a factory fire outside Dhaka killed more than 20 workers.
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