Garment workers blocked the road in Dhaka’s Mirpur last Sunday morning.
How much has the salary of garment workers increased? Is the increase justified and necessary? did not Many studies confirm it. It appears that wage growth has not even come close to keeping pace with inflation. Wage growth rate is 6 to 7 percent and inflation rate is around 10 percent. The workers have claimed that the government has not taken into account market conditions, devaluation of the rupee against the dollar, increase in rents and social security. Taking into account the ability of the owners to determine the minimum wage, the minimum wage has been fixed at 12,500 taka based on the 8,000 taka set in 2018. But this argument is not justified in the face of workers’ hunger.
So they continue the movement. Instead, when the Minimum Wage Board announced a minimum wage of Tk 12,500 for garment workers, discontent spread and turned violent in Gazipur’s Konabari area. In the meantime, there have been tragic incidents like the death of workers and due to this, the owners’ organization BGMEA has announced the closure of around 150 factories.
The Minimum Wage Board has informed in a gazette notification that the minimum wage of the workers will be Tk 12,500, including basic Tk 6,700, house rent Tk 3,350, medical, Tk 750, travel Tk 450 and food allowance Tk 1,250. Before this announcement by the government, BGME’s proposal was Tk 10,400 and the workers’ demand was Tk 23,000. The government did not consider the CPD’s proposal of 17 thousand 400 Tk. 12 thousand 500 taka fixed the minimum wage taking into consideration the proposal of BGMEA. Other than the pro-government trade unions, the wage fixing was rejected and BGMEA said it would be difficult for them to implement the fixing.
Minister of State for Labor Mannujan Sufian held a press conference at the Secretariat on November 7 and announced the minimum wage of garment workers at Tk 12,500.
The major electronic media of Bangladesh are promoting the BGMEA’s statement quite well, while the workers’ statement is not getting much publicity. However, daily and online newspapers provide an overall picture of the labor situation. The picture that emerges shows that although the owners are united, there are cracks in the unity of the workers. The bottom line of the owners’ statement is that most factories, except for a few, cannot afford to raise wages. Because, in the international market, the price they are getting competitively, the profit rate is low, so the minimum wage is not possible to increase. They feel that the government should keep prices affordable and provide workers with rations and other assistance. Many agitating workers also say that the unbearable rise in commodity prices is eating away all their income.
The garment industry developed in Bangladesh in the eighties of the last century has developed well in the international market in the last forty years despite various adversities and is playing an important role in earning foreign exchange. Initially considering this industry as a child labor unionization law was not implemented. Trade unions are still legally prohibited in EPZs. Disasters such as fire and building destruction have repeatedly claimed the lives of workers. This sacrifice of workers was legally due to negligence of the owner and labor laws, but there was no fair trial. Although the international buyers have come forward to improve the labor environment, the Bangladesh Labor Department has not come forward to play any effective role.
Under the pressure of international buyers, many of the owners came forward to improve the working environment, but most of them did not come. More than forty lakh workers work in about four thousand factories. But more than a thousand of these factories are sustainable. The rest fluctuate between profit and loss. But overall, Bangladesh’s garment products market is expanding internationally. This international product enters the market at a special stage, where, Bangladesh does only sewing, although, lately the forward and backward linkages of this industry have developed. This industry has gained quite a lot of power now. However, there is a mix of large industries and small industries. Not only are small industries unable to pay wages, they are also unsustainable as industries. On the other hand, Bangladesh is preferred by international buyers not only because of cheap labor, but also at low rates. As a result, Bangladesh faces competition from other suppliers as well as buyers in the international market. From this competition, the United States and the European Union are monitoring whether the labor environment in the garment industry is in accordance with international labor laws, especially the ILO law, and if it is not up to international standards within this year, it will create various barriers to their market entry in the future.
Unfortunately for Bangladesh, recently the amendments to the Labor Act in 2023 have been passed by the National Parliament, the expectations of the workers and the buyer countries have not been met, the demands of the workers have not been met either. One of the demands of the workers was that the right to unionize workers in EPZ and the power to fire workers should be placed in the hands of the law rather than in the hands of the employer, so that the workers get job security. Besides, maternity leave is made six months. Workers lost several rights in the revised labor law, such as not stopping outsourcing at the government level and declaring almost all jobs essential, taking away the right to strike. One thing is clear, if there is no union in the factory, if there is no opportunity for tripartite meetings, the workers’ movement turns into unorganized protests which are not beneficial to anyone.
Now when the European Union is traveling to Dhaka to monitor the labor situation in Bangladesh, the Industrial Police, BGB and other elite forces are using extra force, baton charges, bullets, sound grenades to deal with the workers’ protests. The worker was shot in the chest, the worker was killed. Absence cases are being filed in the name of thousands of workers. The factory is closing. This use of force by the government is not comfortable for the worker or the owner, nor is it pleasant for the traveling international team.
The government says the labor protests are fueling the ongoing political movement. After all this, the question arises today, the use of massive state power, the killing of workers, the movement of minimum wages will not be suppressed even if it is put under temporary pressure. The reason is simple, a government that cannot control the price of foodgrains is not a friend of the people. Why do people or workers revolt? We have also heard the words in the mouth of a character in Shakespeare’s play. That character says, we are poor citizens, people say, patricians. Who will save us if we make a mistake? What is a source of suffering to us is a source of abundance to them. They get a lot of money for our suffering. Take revenge on them before we go to hell or heaven like this. The gods know, I speak out of hunger, not out of a desire for revenge.
Therefore, workers’ protests need to be considered in terms of workers’ hunger rather than as a result of rebellion or incitement.
The upcoming election, the international pressure of the United States and the European Union and the ILO regarding the labor situation, the pressure of domestic politics may be handled strategically by the government, but the government’s constitutional responsibility is to provide security for the lives and livelihood of the workers of the country, they are citizens of this country.
Fair trial of labor murders, release of imprisoned workers, withdrawal of absentee cases and discussions with workers on minimum wages will improve the labor situation.