How can we expect workers of the country’s leading export industry to support themselves with a wage that does not meet their basic needs?
As guaranteed by Article 37 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, the right to assembly and peaceful procession is one of the fundamental rights of every citizen. Nevertheless, the recent crackdown on readymade garment (RMG) workers who have been protesting for an increase in their minimum wage undermines both these constitutional principles and fundamental human rights.
There are about four million workers employed in Bangladesh’s 3,500 factories, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
The number of female workers in the RMG sector, which hitherto consisted of 80% of the total workforce, has seen a sharp decline because of difficult working conditions, discrimination, long working hours, and low salaries, among other issues.
A recent study conducted in 2021 by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), GIZ, and BRAC University showed that around 54% of the workers in the RMG sector are women.
RMG workers have long been forced to protest against either the nonpayment of their wages or an increase in the minimum wage. Even in the previous decade, RMG workers protested to increase their minimum wage in 2012 and 2016.
They went on strike following the implementation of a monthly minimum wage of Tk 8,000 in 2018, which was half of what they demanded then.
Each time, the police responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas and arresting the protesters including trade union leaders. On the other hand, the BGMEA, which wields substantial political influence, adopted mass retrenchment of workers and factory showdowns as a strategy to curtail the protests.
The government along with factory owners is supposed to increase the minimum wage, considering the price of essential commodities because the last minimum wage was declared in 2018.
Even though the government formed the ‘Minimum Wage Board’ on 9 April 2023, it took about seven months to set a minimum wage of Tk 12,500, neglecting the long-standing demands by labour rights organisation for a raise in pay from Tk 23,000 to Tk 25,000.
Meanwhile, during the recent protests, police again fired tear gas, sound grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, which resulted in the killing two of them including a female garment worker.
Several platoons of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) were also deployed to control the protest. Apart from the Industrial Police, which was formed in 2010 to contain the protests of RMG workers, factory owners allegedly hired local goons in an attempt to put an end to the demonstrations.
Moreover, in response to the protest, factory owners announced the closure of factories and declared that they would adopt the ‘no work, no pay’ policy. Some factories have also halted the recruitment of new workers. Besides, reports have shown that up until now, around 34 lawsuits have been filed against 16,000 protesters.
One might wonder why these workers had to stage protests to increase their minimum wage, as Bangladesh ranks second in terms of exporting readymade garments, which earned $40.16 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2021-22, according to the National Board of Revenue (NBR).
The reason is the ‘deliberate negligence’ of RMG workers by the state as it turns a blind eye when it comes to the vulnerable state of these workers.
The government allocated Tk 107,614 crore for social protection programmes in the 2021–22 fiscal year budget, but there are no social protection provisions for RMG workers. Because of this, they have suffered – both now and during the Covid-19 outbreak – especially when they were forced to work in factories, ignoring health and safety measures.
Furthermore, the rights of the workers are not substantially protected by the existing labour law. On the contrary, it provides enormous power to the factory owners. One such example is Article 13 (1) of the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006, which gives factory owners the authority to withhold salaries of their employees on the grounds of so-called illegal strikes.
After the Rana Plaza tragedy, the government amended the Labour Act in 2013. Still, it did not reduce the threshold required for trade union status and retained the prohibition of trade unions in Export Processing Zones (EPZs).
This stands in sharp contrast to the fact that Bangladesh ratified the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (ILO Convention 87).
Unfortunately, many of the trade unions are either backed by foreign NGOs or have ties to the government, and they both prioritise their individual interests over the workers’. In most cases, left-wing trade unions are not given a registration from the government even if they fulfil the required criteria.
Following the Rana Plaza tragedy, international initiatives, for instance, the Accord and the Compact, were taken to improve the working conditions of the RMG workers. These initiatives included factory inspections, labour law reforms, and measures to empower workers.
However, the High Court barred the extension of the accord in 2018, which significantly hindered its operation in Bangladesh. This decision has put the lives of RMG workers in a disadvantageous position, which is evident in their recent protests regarding the minimum wage.
The aforementioned ‘deliberate negligence’ by the state engenders helplessness in the lives of ordinary RMG workers, which was compounded by the publication of the gazette regarding minimum wage on 11 November 2023.
Many international conventions, including the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), regard a minimum decent wage as an issue of both human and labour rights. But it is also a women’s rights issue because half of the workers are women,and they have to support their families, both in the city and in the village. Hence, the right to a minimum decent wage is not charity; rather, it is the right of the workers.
Do the government and factory owners expect RMG workers to sustain their livelihoods with only Tk 12,500 in the face of cost hikes and inflation? How can we expect the workers of the country’s leading export industry to support themselves with a wage that does not meet their basic needs? This is a question that remains to be answered.