Bangladesh police and garment workers clash over wage rise

Police fire tear gas and water cannon on protesters, who have been demanding higher wages for the past two weeks.

    Nearly four million Bangladeshis are employed in about 4,500 textile and clothing factories [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]
    Nearly four million Bangladeshis are employed in about 4,500 textile and clothing factories [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

    Thousands of garment factory workers in Bangladesh clashed with police on Sunday as they continue to protest against low wages in a sector that brings billions of dollars in export earnings to the South Asian nation.

    Police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse the demonstrators in the capital, Dhaka.

    "The workers barricaded the highway, we had to drive them away to ease traffic conditions," Industrial Police Director Sana Shaminur Rahman told the AFP news agency.

    "So far, 52 factories, including some big ones, have shut down operations due to the protests."

    In September, the government increased the minimum monthly wage to taka 8,000 ($96) that came into effect last month, but trade union leaders demand taka 18,000 ($215) to compensate for the rising costs of living, especially in housing.

    Union leader Aminul Islam, accused factory owners of resorting to violence to control the striking workers.

    "But they (workers) are more united than ever," he told AFP. "It doesn't seem like they will leave the streets until their demands are met."

    'No work, no pay'

    Nearly four million Bangladeshis are employed in about 4,500 textile and clothing factories, which shipped than $30bn worth of apparel last year.

    But many of the workers in the factories say they are paid extremely low wages.

    Roughly 80 percent of the country's export earnings come from clothing sales abroad, with global retailers H&M, Primark, Walmart, Tesco and Aldi among the main buyers.

    Last year, Bangladesh was the second-largest global apparel exporter after China.

    President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has threatened that all factories in the country would remain closed on Monday if those taking part in the protests would not return to work.

    "No work, no pay," Siddiqur Rahman said during a press conference according to local media.

    Wage rise

    The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said that wage hikes should not take place too quickly, as it might kill competitiveness of the country's garment industry.

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    In an interview with Al Jazeera last month, Gowher Rizvi, adviser to Prime Minister Hasina, defended the government's policies.

    "When our government came to power in 2008 the average wage of a garment worker was 1,600 taka ($19). Today, even though I will agree that it is still low, it is 8,000 taka ($96). This means it has increased five-fold. And this has been done largely at the intervention of the government," Rizvi said.

    "I agree that it should be higher, but our record of increasing it five-fold should be applauded and the government should not be blamed," he added.

    The protests are the first major test for Hasina since winning a fourth term in December 30 elections marred by violence and allegations of vote irregularities.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies