After a week of garment worker protests in Bangladesh that turnedviolent at times, factories are open again and workers back at their work places as of Sunday. This was achieved after factory owners promised to raise the wages of Bangladesh’s more than three million garment workers.
Though it is not clear yet by how much wages will rise, it will happen sooner rather than later as the government targets November, a month earlier than the previous deadline. Trade unions have demanded to more than double the current monthly minimum wage of 38 US dollars – the lowest in the world – to 100 US dollars. A government panel is now supposed to set a figure, which factory owners promised to accept.
"We told the unions that we'll hike wages for all workers as soon as the new minimum wages are announced by the government panel. We are also ready to hike wages as much as the panel determines. We will accept even if it is more than 20 percent. But obviously our hope is that the enhanced wages will be win-win for the industry and the workers," Atiqul Islam, head of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told AFP.
The garment industry is worried that Bangladesh will lose its competitive advantage over other garment-producing countries in the region like China, India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam if the pay hike increases by more than 20 percent. However, at only 38 US dollars a month, garment workers have not been able to sustain themselves, let alone their families, leading to poor health and malnutrition.
Plus, the best example is China where wages for garment workers have risen quite dramatically in recent years, up to 50 percent in some cases, and this has not hampered China’s position as the world’s number one garment exporter. Surely, Bangladesh as the world’s number two, should be able to manage a similar feat.
The announcement came after talks late on Saturday between factory owners, government representatives and more than 40 union leaders representing workers in around 4,500 Bangladeshi garment factories.
"We hope there won't be any unrest until the panel announces a pay hike. And we also hope manufacturers will keep their word," commented Baharine Sultan, president of the Jago Bangladesh Garment Sramik Federation.
An estimated 500 ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh’s main garment producing centres had remained closed for almost a week in what was one of the industry’s biggest protests in recent years. According to estimates, this cost the owners some 40 million US dollars – money that no doubt could have been well spent on workers’ wages and factory safety measures.