A mass strike wave of garment workers hit Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka in September.
Hundreds of factories shut down on Wednesday September 25 as the workers took to the streets to demand a wage rise. For several days, tens of thousands of angry workers demonstrated, not only striking but blocking roads, damaging cars and factories, and in at least two instances, setting factories ablaze.
The workers, many of them women, have some of the worst working conditions and wages in the world. Bangladesh is the world’s second largest garment exporter. Clothing shipments from its 4500 garment factories account for 80 per cent of its $27 billion annual exports.
The majority of the garment workers earn a basic monthly wage of 3000 taka ($38) and often have to work ten to 16 hours a day in dangerous conditions. These came to world attention in April, when 1100 workers were killed in the collapse of a multi-storey building that housed five factories.
The day before it collapsed, workers noticed a huge crack in the building and staged a walk out only to be forced back to work after the bosses threatened to dock wages. Workers’ outrage at this disaster led to mass mobilisations and a strike wave that forced the government to make concessions, including giving the workers the right to form unions without the consent of the factory bosses.
It also embarrassed many well-known international clothing companies that manufacture in Bangladesh, including Australian brands Coles, Target, Kmart, Cotton On and Rivers.
In June, the government set up a panel to review wages. Unions demanded an 8114 taka ($100) minimum wage, but the factory owners have said that they can only raise wages by 20 per cent to 3600 taka. The owners’ pay offer has been rejected by workers as inhuman and humiliating. Workers only went back to work after being guaranteed they would have a new wage offer in November.
The workers have every chance to beat the bosses, as they did in 2010 when they forced an almost doubling of the minimum wage.
By Marijke Hoving