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Bangladesh garment worker shot dead in wage protests

Police use tear gas and rubber bullets to break up protests by hundreds of workers who rejected pay rise
Bangladeshi policemen patrol along a street in Ashulia on Nov. 8, a day after the Minimum Wage Board authority declared the minimum wage of 12,500 taka ($113) for garment workers

Bangladeshi policemen patrol along a street in Ashulia on Nov. 8, a day after the Minimum Wage Board authority declared the minimum wage of 12,500 taka ($113) for garment workers. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 09, 2023 04:42 AM GMT
Updated: November 09, 2023 04:44 AM GMT

A Bangladeshi woman was shot dead Wednesday during violent protests by garment workers after they rejected a government wage increase offer, with the victim's husband blaming the police.

The South Asian country's 3,500 garment factories account for around 85 percent of its $55 billion in annual exports, supplying many of the world's top brands including Levi's, Zara and H&M.

But conditions are dire for many of the sector's four million workers, the vast majority of whom are women whose monthly pay starts at 8,300 taka ($75).

A government-appointed panel raised wages on Tuesday by 56.25 percent, but striking workers demand a near-tripling to 23,000 taka.

"Police opened fire. She was shot in the head... She died in a car on the way to a hospital," said Mohammad Jamal, the husband of 23-year-old sewing machine operator Anjuara Khatun, a mother of two.

Jamal told AFP that police had fired on about 400 workers calling for wage increase in the industrial city of Gazipur, outside the capital Dhaka. "Six to seven people were shot at and injured," he said.

Bacchu Mia, a police inspector posted at Dhaka Medical College Hospital where the body was brought, confirmed the death but gave no further details.

Police said fresh violence broke out on Wednesday in Gazipur, home to hundreds of factories, after 4,000 people staged protests rejecting the wage decision.

Thousands more blocked a highway where at least five officers were injured, two of them critically, a police inspector told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign, a textile workers' rights group, dismissed the new pay level as a "poverty wage".

"The new minimum wage condemns workers to a struggle for basic survival for the next five years," it said in a statement.

Many brands sourcing their clothing from Bangladesh have long-standing living wage pledges, it said, but "they have failed to act, illustrating the emptiness of these commitments".

The United States condemned "violence against workers in Bangladesh protesting over the minimum wage" and "the criminalization of legitimate worker and trade union activities".

In a statement, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller urged the panel "to revisit the minimum wage decision to ensure that it addresses the growing economic pressures faced by workers and their families".

'How can I survive?' 

The minimum wage is fixed by a state-appointed board that includes representatives from the manufacturers, unions and wage experts.

"The wage was low before, and it is still low after the new minimum wage announcement," said Mujahid Ahmed, 23, a sewing machine operator. "It is not enough to meet our basic demands."

Unions say their members have been hard hit by persistent inflation -- which reached nearly 10 percent in October -- and a cost-of-living crisis partly triggered by the taka depreciating about 30 percent against the US dollar since last year.

"I am a widow, with two children. I get some 13,000 taka including overtime pay. How can I survive with this little income? My back is against the wall," said worker Shahnaj Akter, in the garment-producing town of Ashulia.

Wage protests pose a major challenge to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 2009. A resurgent opposition has challenged her rule as she readies for elections due before the end of January.

Security has been tight in key industrial towns outside Dhaka after unions threatened to hold new protests over what they described as the "farcical" wage hike.

Police said around 600 factories that make clothing for many major Western brands were shuttered last week and scores were ransacked in the biggest wage protest in a decade.

Four factories were torched and at least two workers were killed in the violence, with tens of thousands of workers blocking highways and attacking factories.

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