'Exploited' garment workers clash with police

Thousands of garment workers in an area of Bangladesh where clothes are made for foreign companies including Marks & Spencer clashed with police today, amid protests over a new minimum wage.

Police charged with batons, fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the stone-throwing workers at Ashulia, a major industrial hub of some 300 garment factories that supply clothing to international companies like Wal-Mart, Zara and Marks & Spencer.

Workers from about 20 factories joined the protests and dozens were injured in the clashes, police official Iqbal Bahar said. A complete figure of injuries was not immediately available.

Today’s protests came two days after the country’s government raised monthly minimum wages for the millions of garment workers by about 80%, after months of often-violent protests over poor pay and working conditions. Workers and labour leaders say the raise is inadequate and does not match the high cost of living.

In the first increase since 2006, the official minimum wage has been set at 3,000 takas (£28) a month, up from 1,662 takas (£16). Workers and labour rights groups have pressed for a monthly wage of 5,000 takas (£46.50).

Garment workers in Bangladesh are paid the least in the world and have difficulty buying enough food and arranging shelter on their monthly earnings, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, a Vienna-based labour rights group.

Bangladesh’s garment exports, mainly to the United States and Europe, earn more than £7.5 billion a year, nearly 80% of the country’s export income. The country has 4,000 factories employing more than 2 million workers, most of them women.

International companies Wal-Mart, Tesco, H&M, Zara, Carrefour, Gap, Metro, JCPenney, Marks & Spencer, Kohl’s, Levi Strauss and Tommy Hilfiger all import in bulk from Bangladesh.

In June, about 700 garment factories in a major industrial hub near Dhaka were shut for two days after days of violent protests by tens of thousands of workers.

The manufacturers say they are being squeezed by a slump in prices on the international market because of global economic crisis. They also say higher production costs due to an energy crisis and poor infrastructure are pushing them to the edge.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina criticised the garment industry for paying low wages to workers but today warned against any chaos in the name of protests, saying the government would show zero tolerance for agitators and “workers should concentrate on work”.

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