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Factory workers protest in Dhaka and across Bangladesh

Protests demanding increased wages in Bangladesh have spread. Textile workers there are among the world's worst paid and often toil 80 hours a week in conditions vulnerable to accidents such as April's factory collapse.

Police in the Gazipur industrial district near Dhaka, the capital, told the news agency AFP that up to 200,000 workers had joined the latest demonstrations. Deputy Mustafizur Rahman said Monday's strikes forced the temporary closure of about 300 factories making clothing for retailers such as Walmart. Protesting workers have attacked plants that stayed open.

"The situation is extremely volatile," Rahman told AFP, adding that the protests had left dozens injured. "Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the unruly workers."

With more than 4,000 factories relying on the work of 3.5 million people - most of whom are women - Bangladesh has become the world's second-largest garment exporter after China, with apparel shipments accounting for 80 percent of its $27 billion (20 billion euros) in annual exports. Protests over poor wages, benefits and working conditions happen frequently in Bangladesh, but they have gained in intensity since April, when a factory complex collapsed (pictured above), killing more than 1,100 people in one of the world's deadliest industrial disasters.

'Forced to shut'

Bosses shut down more than a dozen factories in Savar, where April's accident occurred as protesters clashed with police, leaving about 20 people injured. The nationwide injury total stands at about 30.

"Workers attacked our factories and set ablaze at least two plants," said Reaz-Bin-Mahmood, vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, which represents 4,500 factories. "Hundreds of factories were forced to shut down."

Manufacturers called Monday's protests the biggest in their sector since 2010, when months of demonstrations left dozens of workers dead and scores of plants vandalized, but ultimately forced the government and factory owners to agree to a minimum monthly wage of 3,000 taka. After the April factory collapse and a series of tragic accidents and accusations of harsh labor policies, the workers now seek closer to 8,000 taka ($100/75 euros) a month.

In June, the government set up a panel to review salaries. However, factory owners have rejected the demand offering only to raise wages by 20 percent, to 3,600 taka.

mkg/dr (AFP, dpa)