The garment industry in Bangladesh accounts for 75-80 % of the country’s GDP, and the country is the second largest exporter of clothing in the world. Factory owners routinely sell t-shirts made for $1 to $2 apiece to the Gap for $10 each, which in turn retails them for $50 – but workers make the equivalent of around $38 a month.
These factories have had plenty of health and safety concerns, with 1,100 workers dying last April in a fire at one of them. There have been other fatalities as well, but workers had finally had enough, and in recent weeks they called a series of strikes – some violent – against the plants.
Owners have claimed that they can’t possibly raise wages, as that would cut too deeply into their razor-thin profit margins of 500-1,000%.
While the workers had been demanding a 275% raise to about $103 per month, the government wage board has proposed a 77% raise, from $38 to $68 per month, over owners’ objections. The government doesn’t want the industry that is the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy shut down any longer than is necessary.
A. K. Roy, chairman of the wage board, was quoted by Reuters as saying, “The board proposed this amount considering the present reality both from the point of owners and workers.”
Arshad Jamal Dipu, who represents the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said, “We will appeal to the government to consider our ability, and it should not take any decision out of emotion or political benefit.”
Even with the proposed raise, the minimum wage will remain one of the lowest in the world, and many workers have said that they will continue to strike if they do not get the wages they have demanded.
Sirajul Islam Rony (a representative for the workers on the wage board) said, “We will urge the owners to implement it without any opposition; otherwise, there will be a deadlock in the sector.”
With some on both sides still resistant to the proposed raise, it still remains to be seen whether this will end the strike and send the workers back to their factories, to make clothing for Walmart to sell at vastly inflated prices, while crying poverty and paying their own workers so little that they must depend on government benefits to feed their families and get them the medical care that they need.