More than 300 garment factories in a key industrial hub of Bangladesh were shut down indefinitely Saturday following five days of violent protests by a half-million laborers demanding better wages.
Workers at the Ashulia industrial zone on the outskirts of Dhaka, who make garments for global retailers like Tesco, Gap, H&M, Carrefour and Walmart, last got a raise two years ago, which the union leaders say is unreasonable when compared to the rate of inflation.
Hundreds of people were injured in the unrest, during which tens of thousands of laborers clashed with the police, vandalized more than 100 vehicles and erected blockades on roads. Police resorted to rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the protesting workers.
We have decided to close down more than 300 factories at Ashulia industrial area indefinitely. We can't operate in this climate of fear and lawlessness, Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, president of the garment makers' association BGMEA, told Agence France-Presse.
It won't be possible to reopen the factories until those responsible for the unrest in the industry are given exemplary punishment, Mohiuddin told a press conference, according to Bangladeshi media reports.
The employees work 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, for the lowest garment sector wages in the world.
At present, a garment worker makes between Tk 3,000 ($37) and Tk 5,500 ($67) a month. The agitating workers demand a raise between Tk 1,500 ($18) and Tk 2,000 ($24).
Workers say they incur expenses of around Tk 10,000 ($122) to support their families Their demands include a 50 percent hike in pay and subsidized food to compensate the rising cost of living.
Union leader Babul Akter Thursday claimed that manufacturers had agreed to raise wage, which the BGMEA denied.
It's a lie, total lie. We raised workers salaries by 82 percent just 18 months ago. It's impossible to raise salaries again, said Mohiuddin, according to AFP.
According to Labour and Employment Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, about 500,000 workers are engaged in nearly 350 garment factories in Ashulia and there are about 4,500 garment factories across the country.
U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena had earlier cautioned the Bangladesh government that the protests would harm its apparel exports to the U.S. market.
Addressing a BGMEA meeting in Dhaka on June 6, Mozena said he had received a call at almost midnight from the CEO of one of Bangladesh's biggest buyers who shared his increasing concern that the tarnishing Bangladesh brand may be putting his company's reputation at risk.
I have never had a call like this one during my career, Mozena said. He [the unnamed CEO] said his company would gladly pay more for a Bangladeshi product if it were Fair Trade; his company's reputation is worth more than saving a few cents per shirt by buying Bangladesh.
At a recent dinner here in Dhaka, six buyers for major American brands took me aside and shared with me the increasing concerns coming out of their respective headquarters about what they see happening in Bangladesh, as conveyed to the American public through critical reporting in the media, the U.S. diplomat said.