Bangladesh: fighting poverty pay

Strike and protest action in around 4,000 factories

Garment workers are fighting against poverty wages in Bangladesh. In the teeth of fierce state repression, including beatings, arbitrary arrest and death threats, the vast majority of the country’s 2-3 million garment workers, predominantly women, in around 4,000 factories, have been taking strike and protest action over recent months.

On 29 July, the government announced that it would increase the minimum wage to the garment workers to 2,000 taka a month (£18.50, $28.50). When rent and medical allowances are taken into account it reaches 3,000 taka (£28, $43). Yet small, slum area rooms rent for 2,000-2,500 taka each. Wages have not been increased since 2006, while inflation has remained high, driven by rising food prices. The cost of essentials has soared. Clearly, it is impossible to live on these meagre wages. On top of the low pay, many bosses do not pay on time or for overtime, while many pay less than the minimum wage.

The government has backed big business all the way, the company owners setting the wage limit. And they have declared that they will not implement the wage rise before December. The workers are demanding a minimum wage of 5,000 taka (£47, $73), although unions and charities such as ActionAid say that a living wage in Bangladesh would be around £97 ($150) a month.

Garments account for the vast majority of Bangladesh’s exports, up to £7.8 billion ($12bn) last year – from £3.24 billion ($5bn) eight years ago. This has been achieved on the backs of the workers, the extremely low wages attracting western companies to Bangladesh as a lower-cost alternative to China. Brands such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss and Wal-Mart are some of the companies cashing in.

In reply to the workers’ protests, the government has unleashed a savage crackdown. Trade union and worker militants, along with political activists, have been rounded up. But they are determined to fight on.

•This struggle needs to wider publicity as part of a campaign of international solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Bangladesh.

•Pressure needs to be put on the companies which exploit these workers, above all, the multi-nationals.

•There must be an immediate wage rise to 5,000 taka.

•All worker-activists should be released from jail immediately and the cases against them dropped.

•The harassment, intimidation and brutal repression by state forces and company thugs must end.

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August 2010