For the last few weeks Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, and its outskirts have witnessed a rebellion by 100,000 garment workers.
Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers constitute 40 percent of all industrial workers in the country. In the last year the sector contributed 80 percent of the country’s total exports.
The protests started in Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, on 13 June.
The workers’ demanded an increase in the minimum wage that trade union be allowed to organise in the factories.
The revolt spread across Dhaka to the industrial areas of Tejgaon and Savar, where thousands of garment workers occupied highways.
On 21 June about 60,000 garment workers left the factories in Ashulia and occupied the trunk road that connects Dhaka with other parts of Bangladesh.
Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, hot water cannons and baton charges against them. The elite Rapid Action Battalion force – infamous for “cross-fire” killings – also confronted workers. More than 100 were injured.
The garment bosses responded to the rebellion by shutting almost 250 factories across Ashulia in a mass lock out.
They thought that would disperse workers and allow them to dictate the level of the minimum wage. But their plan backfired as garment workers radicalised and were joined by others workers and supporters from neighbouring areas.
Foreign retailers supplied by Bangladeshi garment factories panicked about shortages of supplies and the garment bosses were compelled to re-open the factories on 23 June.
The backdrop of the workers’ rebellion is the unprecedented hike in the price of food, rent and other essentials.
In the last ten years the cost of living has increased by 94 percent, but workers’ wages only increased by only 24 percent.
Garment workers’ wages are among the lowest of all industrial workers in Bangladesh. Many are compelled to work 12 hours a day, usually without overtime payments, contravening labour laws.
Factories are also unsafe. In the last ten years there have been many incidences of workers who have been burnt to death in workplace fires.
Workers organisations have been demanding that the minimum wage be reset in line with the cost of living.
In 2006, faced with a mass revolt, garment bosses agreed to a monthly salary of 1,662.50 Taka (£16). But this was not enough to meet living costs. One study found that a family of four living in Dhaka needs a minimum monthly income of over 8,000 Taka (£76.56).
Since 2006 a global recession and skyrocketing food prices have made workers lives’ increasingly precarious.
Workers organisations demanded a monthly minimum wage of 6,200 Taka (£59). But the bosses have offered only 1,887 Taka (£18). This meagre offer provoked the current rebellion by garment workers.
Foreign retailers are trying to shift the responsibility for garment workers’ pay onto their local suppliers, but it’s clear they benefit from low wages and low tax on their profits.
A recent report in the Dhaka press revealed that H&M, the giant Swedish retailer, which has a long record of doing business in Bangladesh, paid just £49.42 in local corporate tax in 2008.
The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, enforced daylong Hartal (general strike) across the country on 27 June to protest against the government, but it didn’t include the garment workers’ demands for increases to the minimum wage in its charter of demands.
Left wing parties within the ruling Awami League-led coalition government, as well as opposition left wing parties supported the garment workers’ demands and organised rallies.
Mushtuq Husain is the president of the Centre for Social Praxis, Bangladesh