Textile workers: Protests in Bangladesh and Cambodia

Thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh took to the streets of Dhaka to dismiss the recently announced increase in the minimum wage as completely inadequate.

The increase proposed by the government’s National Wage Board – from $23 a month to $43 a month – follows a period of intense struggle by garment workers who are demanding $75 a month in wages. The new minimum wage is the maximum wage factory owners have said they are prepared to pay.

Labour unions say that the cost of living has soared by 200% since the last increase in the minimum wage in 2006 which affects 2.5 million, mainly women, workers. They say a wage of $150 a month is necessary as a living wage.

Last month, police attacked striking garment workers with bamboo staves, tear gas and water cannon. Children, many of whom work illegally in the myriad of textile factories in and around Dhaka, were also beaten by police. One estimate records 72 incidents of industrial action in the first half of 2010 with nearly 1,000 workers injured by police and 45 arrested.

Bangladesh employers, who make clothing for big western brands such as Marks and Spencer, Wal-Mart and H&M, have also hired goons to intimidate textile workers.

Bangladesh’s garment exports have increased to around $12 billion a year (80% of Bangladesh’s export earnings) from just $5 billion in 2002, fuelled by low labour costs that have attracted top western brands.

Bangladeshi police attack protesters in Dhaka, Friday, July 30

MEANWHILE, IN Cambodia police using electric batons attacked textile workers who have been on strike for one week at a Malaysian-owned factory – PCCS Garments Ltd – that produces goods for brands including Adidas, Puma and Benetton. Nine female workers were left injured.

Workers were incensed over the sacking by management of a union rep and had demonstrated by blocking roads in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Police with a court order tried to clear roads and force the workers back to work.

The garment industry is notorious for low wages and poor working conditions. In 2009 employers laid-off 30,000 textile workers, blaming the recession in the US and Europe cutting demand for goods.

Asda profiting from low pay

A DAMNING report was issued recently by the charity ActionAid on the “deplorable” pay and working conditions of Bangladeshi factory workers employed by British supermarket Asda – a subsidiary of US conglomerate Wal-Mart which makes £45 million a day in profit.

Wal-Mart/Asda pays on average less than one pound a day in wages to its garment workers in Bangladeshi factories, who are mostly women with children, and who have to work long hours.

ActionAid says that this rate of pay is equal to just 25% of the basic cost of living of the average Bangladeshi mother, and as a result many over-worked women are struggling to feed their children. This means that the company’s profits are directly taken out of the pockets of the poorest people on the planet, and out of the mouths of the world’s poorest children. The reason why companies like Asda can provide clothes so cheaply is because its costs are low due to garment workers wages being below the poverty line.

“Asda claims to be a family friendly supermarket but there’s a dark side to its operations. Families are being kept in poverty because Asda’s wages are so low,” said ActionAid’s policy advisor.

In response Asda claims that it has been trying to improve the poor treatment of its workers in the Indian subcontinent, which begs the question: Why are they so disgracefully exploited in the first place? The answer, as usual with capitalist corporations, is profit.

Dave Younger

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August 2010