In Bangladesh, textile workers who produce clothes for Western brands are fighting for an immediate pay rise. Violent protests recently erupted in the industrial zone of Ashulia near the capital Dhaka.
A garment worker argues with policemen during a protest in Dhaka
Last month, tens of thousands of workers vandalised factory equipment, torched delivery vans and erected barricades in the streets. The police responded with rubber bullets, teargas and water cannons. Several hundred factories had to be closed temporarily.
An estimated three million workers, most of them women, are employed in the Bangladeshi garment industry. Many of them receive no more than the minimum wage: around 1600 taka (20 euros). Despite rising food and energy prices, the salaries in the garment industry have remained unchanged since 2006.
Factory security guards inspect the damage after violent protests at a factory in Ashulia
Minimum wage one of the lowest in the world
The workers' situation is very grave, Amirul Haque Amin, head of Bangladesh's National Garment Workers Federation, told Deutsche Welle. "With the salary that was fixed years ago it is quite impossible to survive, that is why we demand 5000 taka as minimum." Amin added that the current minimum wage is one of the lowest in the world.
In the meantime, the violent protests have been put on hold. The workers are waiting for a sign from the government. A tripartite commission of government officials, industry representatives and independent members has been set up to negotiate a new minimum wage. But the interests diverge, said Mustafizur Rahman, director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue think tank.
"The entrepreneurs are saying they are passing through a difficult period: the cost of doing business has gone up, the price of yarn has gone up, so they are ready to raise the minimum wage, but not to the extent that the workers are demanding."
Most garment workers in Bangladesh are women
Cheap labor crucial to compete on world market
Bangladesh entrepreneurs know that low labor costs give them a huge opportunity to compete with the big rival China. As wages in China are rising, many multinationals have started looking for cheaper production countries. But in order to attract more foreign investment, Bangladesh cannot afford labor unrest, explained Mustafizur Rahman.
"So the tricky thing for the minimum wage commission is to find a golden mean which will be acceptable to the entrepreneurs and still allow Bangladesh to compete in the global market."
Bangladesh's economy relies heavily on the garment industry, which accounts for 80 per cent of the country's exports. But following the global crisis, the growth rate plunged to almost zero in the last year. Only very recently have new orders started coming in, said economist Rahman. "It is in no one's interest to jeopardize that. We are very careful that we don't miss this opportunity of the global recovery which has just started to have a positive impact on our export growth."
The government has a strong interest to keep the situation under control. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is expected to announce a new minimum wage compromise at the end of this month.
Dhaka, 2007: protests by garment workers regularly turn violent
Trade unions not allowed
But this will not solve the whole problem, union leaders emphasize. They say that the main cause for the labor unrest is the garment manufacturers' refusal to permit trade unions. "In this situation, in the absence of trade unions, the workers' problem is coming to the streets," said Amirul Haque Amin from the National Garment Workers Federation. "We experience factory blockades because there is no systematic way to address the labor problems within the factory. "
Amin also feels that the West bears its share of responsibility and has appealed to Western customers to pay fair prices for the garments made in Bangladesh.
Author: Ana Lehmann
Editor: Grahame Lucas