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Angry workers

Sanjiv Burman, Ana Lehmann / sbSeptember 25, 2013

Bangladesh, the world's second-largest producer of textiles after China, has the lowest minimum wage. Angry workers have taken to the streets to demand more money and better working conditions.

Bangladeshi garment workers throw stones at police during a protest in Gazipur 40 km north of Dhaka on September 23, 2013. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Protests continued into their fifth day in the capital of Bangladesh, on Wednesday, September 25. Over 200,000 textile workers in Bangladesh have taken to the streets, some clashing with police, rioting and setting factories alight, to demand a higher minimum wage. According to local police, hundreds of factories have had to be closed for safety reasons. An estimated 50 people have been injured in the unrest.

'Modest demands'

Bangladesh's textile workers are among the poorest paid in the world. Most of the people employed in the sector receive a minimum wage, which in the year 2010 was raised to around US$ 38 per month (3,000 taka) after mass protests.

But workers in the industry are now demanding that a further increase to US$ 100 per month.

Economist Shapan Adnan from Dhaka says the demands are modest, considering the high cost of living. "According to a recent study, a family of four would need at least 182 euros per month just to make ends meet."

Bangladeshi relatives hold photos of the missing and dead workers three days after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 27, 2013. (Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Bangladeshis continue to demand justice for the collapse of the Rana Plaza buildingImage: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The employers, however, have only agreed to raise the minimum wage by around US$ 6 per month, pointing to the country's current poor economic situation.

A government commission is looking into the demands of the protesters, but Adnan does not expect much from the government in Dhaka. "It doesn't matter who is currently in power. Most parties are represented by delegates who own textile factories themselves. In other words, every government would be on the side of the employers. And I don't see the current government putting pressure on employers to give workers a decent wage."

Voices grow louder

Time and again there are protests in Bangladesh, not only over low wages, but also over extremely harsh working conditions. Poor safety regulations and a lack of willingness from the employers to improve the situation are harming the development of the sector. Since the Rana Plaza building, which housed a number of textile factories, collapsed in April this year, causing the death of over 1,000 people, voices have been growing louder that Dhaka must do something for the textile workers.

A spokesman of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) told the news agency AFP that the recent protests have been the most violent ones since 2010.

Although the Switzerland-based global union IndustriALL initiated the International Clean Clothes Campaign, in which 56 million euros were meant to be raised for a compensation fund for the victims of the fatal collape, damages are yet to be paid. The union recently invited 28 intenational textile companies to compensation negotiations.

All of the firms had been in business with factories producing in the Rana Plaza building. However, only nine showed up to the two-day meeting in Geneva in mid-September. Big names such as Wal-Mart, Benetton and Mango did not participate. As an excuse, some of the companies said they would rather compensate the victims of the accident on their own. Benetton criticized that the talks had no clear goal. Because of this, negotiations failed.

Economic perspectives

After China, Bangladesh is the world's number-one textile producer. Around 4,500 factories produce approximately 80 percent of the country's exports, the total of which is annually around 20 million euros.

Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), was careful in his assessment when DW asked him about the international initiative to pay damages to the victims of the Rana Plaza incident. He said it was important to look at the entire industry as a whole.

Workers in a textile factory, Viyellatex in Tongi outside of Dhaka, produce t-shirts. (Photo: Tim Brakemeier dpa pixel)
The textile industry is Bangladesh's number-one sectorImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"After the tragic accident at Rana Plaza, international companies were really paying attention to working conditions. Customers no longer wanted to buy textiles from Bangladesh. As head of the BGMEA, I have asked all of our larger customers to continue doing business with us."

He pointed out that if all foreign partners cancelled their contracts with Bangladeshi textile factories, it would be a disaster for the country and bring on mass unemployment. Many European and North American customers, however, had promised to stick to existing contracts with Bangladeshi textile factories.

When asked about the international initiative to compensate the victims, Islam responded, "We will try to speak with the companies again and ask them what they are planning to do. Only then will we be able to comment on that."