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Bangladesh: Struggle for Minimum Wage and Decent Working Conditions

17 November, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

For several years, Bangladesh has ranked as the world’s second-largest clothing exporter, following China.

Between 2021-22, the textile sector generated approximately USD 42.6 billion, constituting over 80% of the country’s total exports. It employs over 4 million individuals, with women comprising about 60% of the workforce.

Historically, working conditions in Bangladesh have been dismal, characterized by inadequate labor rights and substandard company infrastructures. Large manufacturing establishments prevail, often overcrowded and plagued by extreme insecurity.

A pivotal event occurred in 2013: the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, claiming over 1100 lives and injuring more than 2500 individuals. This building housed five clothing factories supplying major global fashion brands. Consequently, many casualties were factory workers.

During the building’s collapse, labels from numerous international fashion brands such as Primark, Inditex, El Corte Inglés, Walmart, Mango, Benetton, Cato Fashions, and The Children’s Place were discovered in the debris. The incident stands as one of the worst industrial disasters in global textile industry history.

Several factors contributed to the disaster, including illegal additional floor constructions, lack of proper permits, and the use of substandard construction materials. Furthermore, inadequate safety measures were in place; for instance, numerous emergency doors and exits were blocked or closed, hindering workers’ escape during the collapse.

The Rana Plaza collapse spurred increased national and international awareness concerning working conditions in Bangladesh’s textile industry.

Consequently, the Bangladesh Accord was signed in May 2013, involving workers’ organizations, international companies, and the Government of Bangladesh. Its primary goal was to enhance safety and working conditions in the Bangladeshi textile industry, encompassing increased safety inspections, building repairs to meet standards, and training for employers and workers.

Renewed multiple times, the Accord involves major international textile brands and has resulted in some improvements in the sector.

However, despite these efforts, working conditions in Bangladesh’s textile industry persist as problematic. Workers often contend with low wages, extended work hours, and hazardous working conditions detrimental to health.

The country has witnessed other serious incidents of job insecurity with fatal consequences for workers. In June 2022, an explosion at BM Depot highlighted significant deficiencies in chemical safety and fire prevention. More recently, on March 4, 2023, explosions occurred at the Seema oxygen plant and in Dhaka, resulting in fatalities and numerous injuries.

Before the first explosion, the International Labour Organization issued a statement emphasizing the urgent need to address safety issues in all workplaces in Bangladesh.

In 2013, the Bangladesh Labour Law was amended to simplify trade union registration, resulting in a notable increase in workers’ organizations. By the end of February 2023, approximately 1,201 trade unions were registered in the textile manufacturing sector.

The strengthening of trade union organization is evident in significant actions demanding substantial wage increases approaching a minimum necessary to cover basic needs. Despite important mobilizations in recent years, these have often been met with repression and mass dismissals.

Presently, industrial actions are escalating and have elicited some positive responses from the State and certain companies, although they fall short of union aspirations.

On November 7, a state minimum wage committee announced a 56.25% increase in the basic monthly salary for the four million textile workers, setting it at 12,500 takas (about $113). However, this amount is considered inadequate and was rejected by unions, advocating for a minimum of 15,000 takas (about $135), as stated by the Bangladesh Garment and Industry Federation.

This state proposal followed extensive mobilizations by thousands of workers against a business proposal for a much lower wage increase than that proposed by the unions. These mobilizations faced repression, with reports of multiple violent acts, and at least three workers lost their lives due to police action.

Some major brands operating in Bangladesh, such as Adidas, Puma, and Hugo Boss, addressed a note to the Prime Minister emphasizing the necessity for a salary increase, which hasn’t occurred for years amidst high inflation.

Though unions acknowledge this, they deem it belated and insufficient, as international brands have generally remained silent regarding wage adjustment demands.

These ongoing mobilizations signal a new reality in the country. After a prolonged period, labor organizations are earnestly advocating for improved wages and working conditions.