Apparel industry workers and union members protested in Bangladesh last weekend over the government’s increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, which they claimed failed to meet their demand for a 100 percent boost.
Putting an end to months of negotiations, Mujibul Haque Chunnu, Bangladesh’s state minister for labor and employment, on Friday revealed an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers to 8,000 taka a month, or $95.45 at current exchange.
This represents a rise of 51 percent from the current 5,300 taka, or $63.24, monthly minimum wage. A gazette notification regarding the increase will be published by the government, and the hike is expected to come into effect from Dec. 1.
But workers had demanded a 100 percent increase. Labor union leaders argued that the living wage needed to be higher to beat inflation, and had demanded 12,000 to 16,000 taka a month as the new figure for the industry’s minimum wage.
These demands have been backed by international nongovernmental organizations, including the Clean Clothes Campaign, the International Labor Rights Forum and Maquila Solidarity Network. They have been jointly urging major brands sourcing from Bangladesh to publicly support workers’ demands, including the minimum wage of 16,000 taka, a statutory framework to govern pay grades and promotion and other welfare measures.
Inditex has been outspoken about its support as well, with a statement on its web site last month noting that the retailer believed “in the right of workers to a living wage, in Bangladesh and in all the markets from which we source.”
“Therefore we expect the collective demands of workers, expressed through their legitimate unions including IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, to be taken into account, and the current negotiations used to reach agreement for a fair increase in the minimum wage that preserves the right of workers to a living wage,” its statement noted.
Trade union leaders have said that they are going to continue to push for a higher minimum wage. Nazma Akter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, said that she hoped “this amount would be reconsidered.” Mahbubur Rahman Ismail, coordinator of Garment Sramik Odhikar Andolan, a platform of 12 labor organizations, said that workers would stick to their demand for minimum wage of 16,000 taka.
“The decision to raise wages for garment workers in Bangladesh is an encouraging — though long overdue — step in the right direction,” Sharon Waxman, executive director of the Fair Labor Association, said in a statement, while noting that the organization and its affiliates would continue to advocate for payment of fair wages and improvements in working conditions.
Kamrul Anam, joint convener of the the Garment Workers Coordination Parishad, said that Bangladesh garment workers received the lowest wages in Asia, with those in India getting about $168 a month; Cambodia, $170; Pakistan, $124; Vietnam, $154, and Myanmar, $86.
But Bangladesh factory owners contend that after five years of factory remediation following the Rana Plaza tragedy, they are being pressured on all sides.
Worker representative Shamsun Nahar Bhuiyan proposed that the minimum wage should increase to 12,020 taka, or $143.44, while the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association (BGMEA) had proposed an increase to 6,360 taka, or $75.90 a month.
The wage board has spent months in sharp disagreement.
“We have spent a lot of careful consideration on this so that it works to the benefit of both sides,” Siddiqur Rahman, president of the BGMEA, told WWD. He added that the increase was substantial, describing the growth in the previous years — the minimum wage was 1,662.50 taka in 2006, 3,000 taka in 2010 and 5,300 taka in 2013. He noted that this was the starting salary and workers who had been working longer receiver proportionately higher wages.
“It is unrealistic to increase the wages by more than 100 percent. When brands demand this, where is their equivalent by paying higher for the manufacturing?” Rahman asked.
The wage increase is being watched carefully by retailers, global brands and NGOs. Bangladesh is the second-largest apparel manufacturer in the world after China and employs more than 4.5 million workers, more than 75 percent of whom are women.