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Deal made over wages for garment workers in Bangladesh

But new minimum wage doesn't cover living costs for working families, priest says

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Deal made over wages for garment workers in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi garment workers shout slogans during a demonstration to demand higher wages in Dhaka on Jan. 10. (Photo by Munir UZz Zaman/AFP)

Struggling garment workers in Bangladesh have been given a rise in the minimum wage after more than a week of labor unrest in Dhaka and adjacent areas.

After a final meeting of a committee consisting of government, owners' and workers' representatives on Jan. 13, a new pay scale was declared to quell ongoing street protests by garment workers.

The protests have paralyzed the industrial hubs of Savar and Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka, and left one worker dead and dozens injured in clashes with police.

As per the new wage scale, the minimum monthly wage for a garment worker has now been fixed at 8,000 Taka (US$95), up from 5,300 Taka in 2013. The workers are also entitled to an annual wage increment of 5 percent.

The pay scale took effect in December 2018. Workers will be paid in arrears in February, the government said.

Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, said workers and trade union leaders have accepted the wage rise and are waiting for it to be implemented.

"It's hard to say whether (this) will suffice in terms of helping them be able to take care of their families," Akhter told ucanews.com.

"The wages were fixed after negotiations between the representatives of owners and workers. If they still can't make ends meet with the raised salary, they may have to quit their jobs," he added.

"This is a minimum wage, but it is no way a living standard wage," he noted.

"In order to keep their health and spirits up, a worker needs around 25,000—30,000 Taka a month. The problem is our garment sector isn't strong enough to support this kind of salary."

Holy Cross Father Liton Hubert Gomes, secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Commission for Justice and Peace, said the renegotiated wage scale still falls short of the mark.

"It's far too low considering the high cost of living in Dhaka and in adjacent areas. A worker's family can't get by on this amount. If both husband and wife work, they can manage, otherwise it will be very difficult for them," Father Gomes told ucanews.com.

"This new scale could be acceptable if workers were entitled to other benefits, such as free education for their children and free medical facilities in public hospitals, but this is non-existent," the priest said.

"Bangladesh garment factory owners make huge profits, so many people are investing in and paying attention to this industry. However, garment workers are still being neglected and the facilities they are given are inadequate."

Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said workers should be satisfied with their recent victory and return to work.

"Many factories are struggling to pay workers more," he said. "We've accepted the wage hike so that calm can prevail and people can get back to work."

"They need to realize we can't pay them more than what we have agreed, or we may be forced to close our businesses," Rahman was quoted as saying in the Bengali daily Prothom Alo on Jan. 14.

"They should help us get production running smoothly again so we can ramp up our output," he noted.

Bangladesh's US$25 billion garment industry is world's second largest after China, thanks to cheap labor and sound investments.

It employs more than four million workers, mostly poor rural women, who stitch clothes for Western brands including Wal-Mart, Disney, Inditex, H&M, C&A, and Gap.

However, the industry has been plagued by poor labor practices and unsafe working conditions, leading to scores of accidents including collapsed buildings and fires.

These tragedies have resulted in deaths and injuries, which has drawn a massive public outcry both in the country and overseas as people call for long-overdue reforms in the sector.

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