Wage hikes and labor struggles in Bangladesh

On Tuesday, Bangladeshi garment workers went back out into the streets, fighting riot police and waging large demonstrations against the wage increase that was set to go into effect today.  Details are still coming in, but initial reports include mention of factory guards firing on workers, police using tear gas and lathi charges, and at least 5 protesters being injured at AmanTex (a textile mill which sews garments for Swedish retail giant H&M).

There are at least three problems with the proposed wage increase: 1) the wage increases still don’t bring wages to the level where workers will be able to keep up with the increased cost of living, 2) while the minimum wage gives an 80% increase in wages to the newest workers, veteran workers don’t see similar increases in their own wages, and 3) there are widespread reports/rumors that the bosses will refuse to pay the government-mandated wage increases.

On Friday, for instance, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association protested the National Board of Revenue’s decision to punish those garment mills which were not paying taxes on rented property and tried to block the imposition of a new value-added tax.  Already feeling the squeeze from the rising cost of production (in part due to wage increases, but also because of electricity and high cotton prices), garment manufacturers are claiming that the taxes cripple their ability to compete in the world market.  So when the same BGMEA announced that wage increases would go in effect on Monday, November 1, few were holding their breath in expectation of increased wages.  In fact, the Financial Express was reporting that the financial troubles in the garment industry have already prompted a number of sales of factories to foreign capital.  (Everyone seems bent on blaming the workers and not the bosses who clearly overestimated how much they could produce in an economic downturn).

Or take for instance the government’s issuing of a proclamation on Sunday that it would punish any garment factory owner who refused to pay the wage increase and the festival bonus to his/her workers.  Clearly there seems to be some understanding that the bosses are seriously considering breaking the law in order for this to be issued.  Although it should be noticed (in typical Sheikh Hasina speaking-out-of-both-sides-of-her-mouth fashion) that the Awami League also announced on the same day that it was launching its “industrial police” whose sole job would be to make sure that the unions stayed in line.

A few months ago, I reported about the splits in the labor movement (between the pro-government unions and the independent, left unions) and they seem to have widened in recent weeks.  Take, for instance, the difference in posture between the Garment Shramik Oikyo Parishad and the pro-government Jatiya garment Sramik Federation:

“A minimum wage of Tk 3,000 is insufficient for a worker to lead a decent life, and so, we protested the hike,” Mushrefa Mishu, president of Garment Shramik Oikyo Parishad, told the FE.

Mishu also expressed fear regarding the implementation of the new wagestructure in all factories. “We have previous experiences that make us worried.”

“The wage hike is not the demand of the garment workers’ organisations, but the promise from the government and BGMEA,” said Aminul Huq Amin, president of Jatiya Garment Sramik Federation.

“Though in the tri-party meeting in August we proposed to announce the hike earlier than November, we are hopeful that the new wage hike will be implemented in all factories.”

It’s unclear whether this will produce another round of protests like the one’s that broke out last summer, but what does seem to be clear is that organizing in the garment industry is still proceeding.  And if the bosses look to solve their financial troubles on the backs of the workers, there will likely be a big fight once again.