Op-Ed: Bangladesh garment workers get raise but riots go on

Posted Nov 17, 2013 by Karen Graham
Bangladesh is the world's second largest exporter of apparel after China. Cheap wages and lucrative trade deals have made the garment industry the country's main livelihood for millions of people, most of them women.
Garment workers take to the streets in Bangladesh.
Garment workers take to the streets in Bangladesh.
Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers' and Exporters' Association said on Thursday that garment factory owners had agreed to a 77 percent increase in the minimum wage to be paid to garment workers.
The raise would amount to $66.25 a month, up from the $38 a month workers had been making. Regardless of the raise, it is still the lowest minimum wage in the world. The government-appointed panel handling the proposal agreed to the raise on Nov. 4, and after a meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday night, brought it before the factory owners.
While it was hoped the raise would quiet the protests and riots that have plagued the country for the past week, workers are still taking to the streets, demanding the minimum wage be raised to at least $100 a month. Many workers are complaining that even at $100 a month, it will still be difficult to live.
Bangladesh garment factory owners have been in an unwanted world spotlight since the collapse of a garment factory building in April resulted in the deaths of over 1,100 workers, the worst industrial disaster in the country's history. Last year, in November, a garment factory fire killed 112 workers.
Even though the factory owners agreed to the raise, there are fears the raise is "too much" because global brands will be unwilling to pay higher prices, and with stiff competition and continuing economic woes in the west, they will not make a profit. Bangladesh exports mainly to Europe and the U.S. and earns around $20 billion annually from apparel exports.
Yes, minimum wage, a living wage should be the right of everyone, regardless of which country they live in. When we compare the annual salary of someone in the U.S. making $35,000 a year, and then imagine someone trying to feed a family on $1,200 a year, it is enough to make anyone sick.
But it's not just minimum wage the workers in Bangladesh have to deal with. They are also taking to the streets to protest the safety conditions, or the lack of safety conditions they must work under. Graft and political pay-offs have kept factories open that should have been closed because of safety concerns, and officials have turned deaf ears on any and all complaints.
We're not talking about the toilet being plugged up, but serious, life-threatening conditions that put workers in danger of their lives. So the protesters put up with the police using water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas to stem their marches. Their numbers swell to as many as 50,000 on many days, and still they are angry, and rightly so.
Many apparel companies in the U.S. have chosen to ignore the plight of the garment workers. Wal-Mart, J.C. Penny, The Gap and others also rejected a proposal to help financially in improvements needed in many factories. With the pressure to take action, the threat of a boycott doesn't seem to be bothering them very much.
So the workers in Bangladesh will go back into their factories, fearful at times, wondering if this will be the day their building collapses, and here in the U.S., we will continue to rush to the malls, ready to shell out ten dollars for a pullover that someone making pennies an hour stitched together.