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article imageBangladesh garment workers protest low pay, 4,000+ face charges

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By Stephanie Dearing     Aug 5, 2010 in Business
Dhaka - Ever wonder how Wal-Mart could offer up all that incredibly affordable clothing? They purchase clothing made in garment factories in Bangladesh, where the average employee earns $0.25 an hour.
Bangladesh's garment factories, a major export for the nation, and an area set up near the capital city, Dhakar, is home to nearly 4,000 factories. The garment factories have been in the news in the past because of the sweat shop conditions that workers must endure.
This year union-led garment workers have been agitating for an increase in pay, as they have for the past several years. BBC said workers wanted the minimum wage set to allow them earn at least $72.00 US per month.
The new minimum wage is almost double the current standard, reported Fiber2Fashion. But workers maintain the increase is not adequate, saying it only allows them to earn a base of $45.00 a month. Not having demands met sparked the most recent protest, which lasted for four days. The new minimum wage of $0.34 per hour will take effect in November. The current minimum wage allows workers to earn at least $25 a month. The increase is the first since 2006.
The protests saw roads blocked by workers burning tires, and factories closed due to vandalism. Clashes between protesters and police resulted in around 100 people injured reported Voice of America; while over 4,000 workers were booked by police said the Hindustani Times.
The low wages paid to workers in Bangladesh have given the country an edge, allowing it to compete with the Chinese, said an article in the New York Times. The government says that garment factories bring in 3/4 of the nation's export earnings. Garment workers would like stronger occupational safety standards put into place.
However, while the country benefits from the industry, the workers are struggling, say union leaders. The Jakarta Post said nearly two million people work in the garment factories. Workers say the wages are not adequate to meet high costs of living, but Bangladeshi factory owners say they have high production costs and cannot afford to pay more.
The push for better pay has not been without consequences for the workers. The Bangladesh government has taken steps to quell dissent, said the International Labour Rights Forum. "... the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), was stripped of their legal NGO status by the Government of Bangladesh on June 3, 2010. Then one of their staff was detained and tortured by Bangladeshi authorities. The harassment and violence of workers' rights advocates in Bangladesh must END NOW."
In order to curb further protests, the government announced it will be increasing security during Ramadam said the Daily Star. Ramadam, a 30 day Muslim observance begins on August 11 this year, ending September 9th.
Trade unions in Bangladesh are severely restricted by the government. A union must be approved by the government before it can be registered, but for factories situated in the EPZ zone, unions are not allowed at all said the United Nations Refugee Agency in its report, 2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Bangladesh. The agency also lists crimes against workers perpetrated by factory owners/managers, such as forcing women to strip naked for a beating as punishment for participating in a strike.
The EPZ zones are Export Processing Zones, established by the government. The zones are common in many countries, such as Mexico. Bangladesh has eight EPZ zones, meant to encourage rapid economic growth for the country. The government states "The primary objectives of an EPZ is to provide special areas where potential investors would find a congenial investment climate, free from cumbersome procedures."
A number of large retailers purchase garments made in Bangladesh, including Wal-Mart, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Carrefour and Zara. Wal-Mart spends over one billion dollars each year on garments from Bangladesh, although Wal-Mart only buys 30% of all the garments made. Most of Bangladesh's ready-made garments are sold to the United States.
The National Labour Committee has posted the testimony of one young garment worker describing her life.
There are movements aiming to help garment workers around the world, such as the Clean Clothes Campaign.
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