Workers demo over demand for wage increase

Garment sector in turmoil over spiral economic crisis

Badrul Alam

Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu

Foreign reserve is depleting. Taka has been depreciated by 29% in the last two years. Besides, government revenue in the last fiscal year was about BDT 1 trillion less than the target. The Central Bank had to print money to pay government expenses. So, though the prices of all products have decreased in the international market, skyrocketed in Bangladesh. Due to this spiral economic crisis, common people are struggling hard to meet their ends. The mishandling of the market and the plundering of middlemen have put enormous pressure on the purchasing power of the workers, including basic necessities like rice, eggs, and potatoes. Labour dissatisfaction has gradually spread on various fronts.

The last wage increase in the country's largest industry, the garment sector was in 2018. Then the minimum wage of workers in the sector was set at 8 thousand taka. Calculating the exchange rate of the dollar at BDT 83.90, the monthly minimum wage at that time stood at 95.35 dollars. The board that was formed this year to revise the wage structure proposed BDT10,400 in its fourth meeting. According to the proposal and the current exchange rate of the dollar (TK 110.50), the monthly wage of the worker is 94.11 dollars. At the same exchange rate, the minimum wage demanded by the workers (TK 20,393) stands at 184.55 dollars.

Entrepreneurs in the sector say it has become difficult for them to ensure the justification of wage structure in accordance with the dollar exchange rate. Five years ago in December 2018, the exchange rate was BDT 83.90 per dollar which currently stands at BDT 110.50 due to the devaluation of the local currency.

Even to coordinate with the proposal of the owner and the workers on average, the wage must be set at around 150 dollars which is equal to BDT 16,575.  The owners are claiming that this wage is not even feasible as minimum wage.

Reviewing the situation, sector stakeholders say inflation and currency devaluation are fueling instability by destabilizing the wage structure. It has become difficult for the workers to live comfortably. Additionally, employers also do not find it realistic to propose an acceptable wage structure by adjusting the exchange rate. Although they have announced if a wage structure is set up following the government's guidelines, they will try to accept it and implement it.

The inflation rate is almost uncontrollable here in Bangladesh. In the last September, the inflation rate was 9.63%. On October 8, the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a non-government research organization recommended a minimum wage for garment workers at BDT17,568 taka considering the rising inflation and financial security of workers.

In favor of the proposal CPD research director Khondaker Golam Moazzem said this proposal has been given calculating the minimum cost of a family keeping two earning people in view. The food cost of a garment worker's family is BDT 16,529 taka. Other expenses are BDT 12,881. The total monthly cost is around BDT 29,410. If you add inflation, it stands at BDT 31, 942.

A board has been formed this year to review the minimum wages of workers in the garment industry. The fourth meeting of the board was held on October 22. In the meeting, the owners proposed a minimum wage of BDT 10,400 taka while the demand of the workers was BDT 20,393 taka. The workers’ demands are almost double that of the owners. The fifth meeting of the board is scheduled to be held Wednesday. There will be negotiations between the two sides on the proposal of the fourth meeting.

At the end of the fourth meeting, Sirajul Islam Roni, a representative of the workers said, "We have prioritized what is required to lead a barely standard life of one's family. We have made a feasible proposal based on the facts and data collected. We needed to ask for more. However, analyzing the situation and considering the overall scenario, we proposed a minimum wage of BDT 20,393. We have adjusted the capacity of the industry and the demand of the workers.”

Stating that the minimum wage has been proposed on the basis of one and a half members of a family. The labour leader said two members might have earning capacity in a family. Keeping this in view, this proposal has been made for one and a half members of a family, not even for two.

Meanwhile, Siddiqur Rahman, the representative of the owners’ side, said, "There is a gap between the proposals made by both the owners’ and the workers’ side. It happens most of the time. The workers will demand, and the owners’ side will try to offer. If the workers remain well, the owner's production will be well. Considering these things, we have proposed.”

Claiming the global economic depression has been considered in the owner's proposal, Siddiqur Rahman said, "During the Covid period, we were all in a panic and suffered losses in the domestic and foreign markets. Later, due to the Russia-Ukraine war, the increase in oil prices increased the cost of everything. The price of our products has not increased compared to that. Besides, the demand and sales of clothing in developed countries have decreased due to inflation and interest rates. Now the Hamas-Israel war has started again. We don't know where it will move to. We will have to be under additional pressure for these reasons in the price-based competition of products in the near future.

When asked about the reason for the low wages of Bangladeshi workers in view of the global situation, this former president of BGMEA said they don't have the opportunity to raise much despite of rise of the dollar rate as buyers are not increasing prices. He additionally mentioned the owners must have the ability to give.

Asked regarding t the basis on which the minimum wage of BDT10,400 has been proposed, Siddiqur Rahman said, "We have set the wage considering the ability of the owners, the price of products in the international market, sales, inflation of our country."

Concerned say the garment sector is the main lifeline of Bangladesh's economy. Owners are already under pressure in many ways. Profitability is reduced. Business expenses have increased. Apart from this, we have to face various crises including the gas problem, and a decrease in purchase orders. However, life has become difficult for the workers considering the inflation. Due to inflation and mismanagement of the dollar exchange rate, setting a balanced wage structure is beyond the range of both employers and workers. Altogether, it is now difficult for both sides to reach a consensus.

In the last nine days, the clash centered on the wage hike movement has taken a major form. The situation has become difficult to deal with immediately. There was a clash erupted between the agitating workers of a local garment factory and the anti-blockade activists on Tuesday based on the road blockade. Members of the Police and RAB were deployed in the Mirpur-11 area to control the situation.

Mejbah Uddin, an Inspector (Investigation) of Pallabi police station, told Bonik Barta, "It has been allegedly reported that local miscreants have attacked workers who are protesting for wage hikes. Meanwhile, several garment workers were injured. Later, when the agitating workers took a position on the road, the workers of the nearby garment factories also joined them.

According to the Industrial Police, there were workers' demonstrations in 69 factories in the Ashulia, Gazipur and Narayanganj areas from October 22 to 28 on the demand for arrears and an increase in wages. This movement intensified last Monday leading to two workers' deaths in Tongi and Konabari of Gazipur. Protests were also seen in big factories the day before yesterday.

The agitation spread the day before yesterday in factories like Envoy, Pioneer, Fashion Forum, Palmal, Nasa, Febrilife, Shaharia, Skyline, William etc in the Ashulia area. Apart from these, several factories including Purbani and Fortis in Gazipur fell under the grip of dissatisfaction.

According to the Savar Correspondent of Bonik Barta, Thousands of workers from several factories came down on the road in Ashulia of Savar yesterday. The blockade has been going on intermittently since morning from Jamgara to the Choytala area of the Tongi-Ashulia-EPZ road. At one point of tension, the police fired tear gas to evacuate the workers. The agitated workers also pelted bricks at the police in response of firing tear gas. BGB, District Police, DB, Industrial Police and Armed Battalion have been deployed there to handle the situation.

Md. Abdullahil Kafi, Additional Superintendent of Police (Crime and Ops and Traffic) of Northern Division, Dhaka District said, "Several factory workers are protesting and vandalizing on the road demanding wage hike. This is not desirable. They could discuss their demands with the concerned authorities. But they are creating a volatile environment by setting fire on the road. They are doing it with the instigation of a certain quarter. We are working to keep the law and order situation under control.

Workers of various factories started protesting in Gazipur from morning on that day. At around 9:30 am, the police outpost in Mouchak Bazar area of Kaliakair upazila was attacked by the procession of the workers. The agitated workers broke the gate of the outpost, glass and signboard of the office and protested. Later, they attacked the Safipur traffic police box of Gazipur district police. Demonstrations and vandalism also took place in Choydana, Malek Bari, Telipara, Bordbazar Bhogra areas of Gazipur metropolitan area.

According to the police, workers started protesting in the Mouchak Bazaar area of Kaliakair upazilla in the morning. They vandalized 10-12 transports on the Dhaka-Tangail highway during that time. When the industrial police and general police tried to control the situation, the workers got angry and chased the police. The agitated workers attacked the police outpost while the police took shelter in it.

Confirming the matter, Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Kaliakor police station Akbar Ali said that hundreds of workers formed a group and attacked the police outpost with a protest march. The glass and gate of the outpost were vandalized. Besides, Safipur police box was also attacked. Walton Plaza was set on fire by workers. The fire service came and brought the fire under control but the goods got burnt.

Meanwhile, around 9:00 am yesterday, hundreds of factory workers entered into a factory named Sangwang in Bhogra area breaking the gate and attacked. when the nearby factories Alema and Mim Design were to be attacked, the factories were declared closed. Workers vandalized Needledrop garment factory in Basan area. Later, the workers blocked the Dhaka-Mymensing highway in Bordbazar area and stopped the traffic. At this time, BGB went and removed the blockade on the road. Police fired tear shells and rubber bullets to disperse the agitated workers.

The authorities have announced the closure of most of the factories since Monday due to the workers' protest. Although the factory was closed, the workers protested by blocking the Dhaka-Tangail and Dhaka-Mymensingh highways since morning. It stopped the traffic on the highway. When contacted with the officials of several factories, they said considering the workers' protest, notices have been given to close the factories for a temporary period. If the situation becomes normal, the factory will be opened.

The Organizing Secretary of the Central Committee of the National Garment Workers Union,  Ashrafuzzaman said, "The wage board which is formed for the workers is working, but it has not been finalized yet." When the announcement is made, I will decide whether I will agree or not. We think some people are destabilizing the situation by inciting the workers.

ASP Mosharof Hossain of Gazipur Industrial Police said, “The workers have been protesting since morning, and the police are working to prevent chaos. Additional police have also been deployed in front of various industries in Gazipur. The workers are being asked to remain calm without vandalism.”

Sarwar Alam, Superintendent of Police of Gazipur Industrial Zone Police-2, said, "A large number of police have been deployed to control the garment workers. It is also being investigated whether these workers are being agitated by any incitement.”

Bonik Barta correspondent of Savar and Gazipur associated to make the report.

Translated by Mehedi Mamun

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