Machines at most garment factories in Bangladesh started humming again yesterday after workers returned to their workstations following a nationwide strike over wages. The week saw striking workers clash with riot police in the country, which ranks second in the world behind China in garment exports. The strategically located nation is often at the receiving end of natural calamities and floods. However, the brewing revolution by garment workers over most of this year has overshadowed most other concerns of the government. Bangladesh has been buffeted by industrial action in the garments manufacturing sector since a factory fire killed over 100 people late last year. The uproar over the incident was relatively muted though there were murmurs of protest against western brands helping unscrupulous factory owners exploit helpless workers.
And then Rana Plaza struck. With the nine-storey hub of factories collapsing, the edifice of Bangladesh’s garments industry was shaken. A total of 1,127 workers died in what was a monumental tragedy that exposed the dark underbelly of the mafia-like networks behind the garments business.
The tragedy, which struck the factory complex in the outskirts of Dhaka, made the West weigh in. A number of luxury brands came under the spotlight for using cheap labour to make their ware, which is sold in premium outlets in western countries. The government made numerous promises in the aftermath of the tragedy on April 26 this year. However, the treatment meted out to agitating workers this week showed the government had come out of its defensive shell just five months later. It warned of a crackdown against protesting workers who forced the shutdown of hundreds of factories.
The average wage of a garment worker is about $38 and they have been on the warpath for months demanding that it be raised to $100. Considering that most garments being manufactured in Bangladesh factories belong to European and American brands, the demand for the minimum wage is not exaggerated. Instead of acceding to it, the government issued a virtual threat. Home (Interior) Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir warned that garment making is a national industry, and anybody going against it will be considered anti-national.
Now, going by the price tags at which the premium brands hawk their merchandise in Europe and America, the average monthly salary of a Bangladeshi garment worker would be insufficient to buy even one such garment. And the demand for a $100 wage? In most places in Europe, one would spend that amount on buying one coffee a day for a month.
Instead of threatening hapless workers, the government should try to strike a balance between their demands and the sustainability of the industry that contributes substantially to national income and employment•