Garment workers in Bangladesh are some of the lowest paid workers in the world. Their resistance has inspired tens of thousands of workers across the world, like the Cambodian workers striking last week.

Price hikes in the cost of food, rent and other basic necessities have soared to unprecedented levels in recent months and have meant that workers can no longer afford to make ends meet. They have been demanding a three-fold increase in monthly wages.

Last July, the tripartite wage board formed by the government to negotiate the wage increase proposed Tk 2,000 (approximately £18) as a basic monthly wage, not including housing and medical allowances. The members who represented workers on the board were from the government-backed workers’ organisation, so there was no real protest against this. But they did demand that the basic monthly wage be raised to Tk 5,000 ( £46) not including housing and medical allowances.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Employers Association (BGMEA) and other managers in the garment industry say that an increase in wages will increase production costs and make the industry less competitive with producers in China and Vietnam. Yet as the country’s main export earner, the garment industry brought in over $12 billion last year.

Back in 2006 when the last minimum wage of £15 was announced, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina commented that the wages were inadequate and inhuman. The minimum wage had been revised in 2006 after 12 years, despite agreements that call for it to be revised every 3 years. The previous minimum wage was about £7. The 2006 revision was already below the rate of inflation. The new proposal takes no account of rising food prices and other living costs.

The protests that erupted following the announcement of the new wage structure on 29th July, show no signs of calming down. They started in the heart of Dhaka, the Tejgaon industrial area. Thousands of workers walked off peacefully from the factories, sat in the streets and demonstrated. When police used force to disperse the workers, protests became violent. The police used lathi charge, tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. Demonstrations were not only limited to Tejgaon, they spread to the posh areas of Dhaka—Gulshan, Banani, Kakoli and Mohakhali—as several ready-made garment (RMG) factories are housed in these areas, along with embassies and international agencies. But quickly, demonstrations spread throughout the country where RMG factories are located: Ashulia, Savar, Fatulla, Sonargaon, Gazipur, and Kalurghat in Chittagong.

In August, garment workers in Narayanganj laid siege to factories, and at least 50 people were injured during clashes with the police. Five arrests were made. The demands of the workers included fixing working hours from 8am to 5pm, instead of the current 12-hour workday, implementing the new increased wage with immediate effect, and stopping the torture of workers.

There were also protests against factories remaining open on national holidays. Workers protested outside a factory in Gazipur that was not closed on 15th August, a national holiday, then blocked the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway. When the management accepted the workers’ demand and declared the day a holiday, the workers withdrew the siege. On the same day, workers at another factory started an agitation demanding payment of arrears. When the factory bosses arrived at an agreement with the workers, the work resumed.

Workers have also demanded bonuses and shorter hours during Ramadan. When leading workers communicated this demand to factory bosses, they were sacked from work and other dissenting workers were beaten severely. A written statement said some factory owners were trying to get away without paying festival allowances. The implementation of the increased minimum wage, though meagre, only takes effect from November, which deprives both Muslim and Hindu workers of festival bonuses. Even the government-backed workers’ organisation opposed the delay in implementation. This treatment compelled the workers to openly agitate and block the highway to attract the attention of the people outside the factory.

To date more than a hundred workers, both male and female, have been arrested. One leader advising the workers was arrested in his house in the middle of the night and was taken away for nine days under Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) custody. The RAB is an elite police force known for extra-judicial killings. The police and RAB have been arresting workers and activists by scrutinising video footage and photographs of agitating workers taken during protests. One female leader was threatened with a ‘cross-fire’ killing, while another female worker in Narayanganj was sacked for talking to the BBC in an interview about the situation of RMG workers. Cases have been filed against more than 30,000 workers and leaders.

When asked how the workers are managing their lives with this meagre wage, one worker said, “We do not live, we just survive. We have no house; we sleep at night together with other co-workers sharing the same bedsheet on the floor of a single-room house. We prepare meals by rotation for 5 or 6 co-workers together, and take the main meal once after the day’s work. We do not eat meat or fish. We eat rice and vegetables. Yet we have to borrow from neighbours, buy essentials on credit from shopkeepers, and pay the rent late. The situation changes when Western buyers arrive in the factory to see ‘compliance’. Then we are supplied with uniforms, snacks and lunch, pedestal fans are provided in the floor, bathrooms are cleaned, drinking water is provided. When the team leaves, the situation reverts to the same old one.”

A calculation done by the Geneva-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) showed that a minimum wage of £98 (Tk 10,682) is needed for a Bangladeshi RMG worker to survive and work. If it were to be implemented, the price of a T-shirt would increase by 6p, a pair of jeans by 12p. The major retailers who import RMGs from Bangladesh include Wal Mart, Tesco, H&M, Zara, Carrefour, Gap, Metro, JC Penny, Marks & Spencer, Kohl’s and Levi Strauss. Representatives of most of these retailers have already warned they would not pay higher prices for imported RMGs, even if the minimum wage were to be increased. It is clear from this that the meagre increase is not only pressed by the BGMEA, but equally by Western retailers.

Workers will have to fight not only the Bangladeshi bosses, they will have to fight against international exploiters too. In the meantime they have given inspiration to the tens of thousands of RMG workers in Cambodia, who were out on strike last week demanding a decent minimum wage. In this struggle workers will also have to forge unity with the working classes of those countries where their products are sold.