12 Nov 2013

Bangladesh garment workers protest over pay

10:44 am on 12 November 2013

Bangladesh police fired water cannon and rubber bullets to break up a protest by garment workers demanding a higher minimum wage, forcing the closure of more than 100 factories.

The country's official wage board proposed a 77% rise in the minimum wage for garment workers last week. Factory owners said they could not afford the proposed increase.

Police also fired tear gas to disperse the stone-throwing demonstrators in the Ashulia industrial belt, on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka, that accounts for nearly 20% of total garment exports.

The clothing industry, which supplies many Western brands, has already been under the spotlight after the accidents, including the collapse of a building housing factories in April that killed more than 1,130 people.

The present minimum monthly wage of $US38 is around half that of rival Asian exporters Vietnam and Cambodia and just over a quarter of the rate in top exporter China, according to International Labour Organisation data from August.

Garment factory staff went on strike over wages for six days in September, hitting production at almost 20% of the country's 3,200 factories. The strikes followed similar protests over the summer.

The new protest coincided with a four-day nationwide strike led by the main opposition party demanding next year's election take place under a non-partisan government.

The impasse between the ruling party and opposition over election rules is a fresh threat to Bangladesh's $US22 billion garment export industry, the economic lifeblood of the impoverished country of 160 million, employing around 4 million people, mostly women.