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Thousands of Dhaka garment workers clash with police

Battles escalate as workers call for minimum wage hike

Thousands of Dhaka garment workers clash with police

Garment workers protest for the minimum wage to rise to US$68 per month (photo by Stephan Uttom) reporter, Dhaka

November 12, 2013

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Thousands of angry garment workers battled police in an industrial suburb near Dhaka on Monday as tensions over a disputed hike in the minimum wage escalated.

Violence erupted in the Ashulia industrial belt in the northeast of the capital after thousands of workers blocked roads, smashed factories and vehicles later attacking police with sticks and bricks. Police retaliated with tear gas and rubber bullets.

More than 50 people were injured, including police, while 150 factories out of 500 in the area were shut down.

“[On Monday] they didn’t go to work, instead they went on a rampage and even attacked police,” said Abdus Sattar, an inspector of the Industrial Police which is responsible for law and order in Bangladesh’s manufacturing zones.

Protests have escalated since Saturday when garment workers called for factories to implement a 77-percent rise in the minimum monthly wage to 5,300 taka (US$68) proposed by a government-backed wage board last week.

Following discussions, factory owners rejected the proposal arguing that wages above 4,500 taka would destroy Bangladesh’s competitiveness in the global garment market amid ongoing violent strikes by opposition parties in the run up to general elections.

“We are already seeing huge losses due to political violence and have still kept factories open to meet shipping deadlines,” said Muhannad Nasim, a garment factory owner in Dhaka.

Babul Akhter, a labor leader, said that workers’ frustration went beyond the call for higher wages.

“Food and medical allowances differ from factory to factory and some owners keep the allowances high and keep basic pay low for workers. Yet again, by playing with minimum wage proposals, owners have instigated worker anger,” he said.

Labor Minister Rajiuddin Ahmed said the government expects to reach a settlement over the minimum wage by November 21.

Labor unrest is common in Bangladesh’s $20-billion garment industry with factory owners under pressure to deliver better conditions and wages after more than 1,100 people were killed when the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Dhaka in April.

In response, the US has removed preferential tariffs for Bangladeshi exports in a bid to create leverage to better conditions, but critics of the industry argue that Western companies including Walmart and Gap are partly responsible as bulk buyers of the country’s garments.

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