Earlier this month, a group of workers at the Tuba Group garment factory in Bangladesh locked owner Delwar Hossain in his office and demanded that he pay the bonuses he’d promised them for the Eid al-Adha holiday, according to Reuters. Such extreme interventions are rare in Bangladesh, where the garment export industry is a main driver of the economy, but it was crazy enough to work: After 18 hours in captivity, the boss agreed to hand over the money. Such tactics have proven effective outside the factory walls, too, as workers in the streets resort to desperate measures to address desperate grievances.
After the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, which killed more than 1,100 people in Savar, Dhaka this April, massive worker strikes erupted all over Bangladesh. Thanks to subsequently intensifying local as well as international public outcry, government officials have finally agreed to raise the minimum wage by as much as 50 to 80 percent.
The fight isn’t over yet, however. Though the workers have demanded a minimum monthly wage of 8,000 taka, or about $100 (more than double the current minimum of $38, last raised in 2010), the pending raise would likely be much less than that—perhaps raising it only to about $60, according to Reuters. That proposed level would still be less than what comparable garment workers in Cambodia typically earn, and far below what experts say would keep up with the general cost of living in Bangladesh, Factory owners and their powerful official allies in government are continuing to resist any measures that would reduce their profits from the country’s massive, $22 billion garment export industry.
Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker and now a leading activist with the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, says that if the wage hike falls far short of workers’ demands, as seems likely, the strife in the streets will persist. “If the minimum wage comes in [at] half of the figure of what workers are asking, that will escalate the situation,” she told In These Times during a visit to New York this week. Though she is confident that grassroots action can help advance the workers’ cause, she worries that the political opposition may take advantage of these tensions by stoking further unrest to fuel the country’s fierce political rivalries.
Indeed, 24-year-old Dhaka factory worker Mosammat Jhumur, who joined a strike wave in September that impacted hundreds of plants, tells Reuters, “If [the minimum wage hike] is less than 8,000 taka, we have to press the government or the factory owners to increase… If we need to go on the road to demonstrate, then we will do that.” Read the rest of this entry →