Bangladesh apparel sector might be on the brink of a major unrest

by Apparel Resources

17-December-2018  |  7 mins read

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Bangladesh’s apparel industry might be on the brink of a major unrest over the new wage structure that the agitating workers have termed “discriminatory.” This has forced closure of at least 60 factories across several locations.

Though the agitation has been devoid of any violence, industry stakeholders are worried that it might soon take the shape of a full-scale unrest. While owners say they are reacting to rumours, the employed workers think they are being discriminated against.

Up until December 14, 2018, production remained halted across at least 60 factories in Ashulia, Savar and Gazipur areas. Vandalism has been reported at seven factories, and many are seeing fewer workers turning up for work.

Why the unrest?

The new wage board fixed BDT 8,000 as the minimum wage that has come into effect from this month. Earlier, the garment workers were getting a minimum wage of BDT 5,300. This effectively means that any new worker in a factory will be receiving a wage of BDT 8,000.

However, making an adjustment to the wage of the already employed workers is quite precarious. Workers, especially in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade, believe that any adjustment to their wages might see very little increase – which could be as low as BDT 500.

For example, a worker in the 3rd grade has a salary of BDT 6,800 which gets raised to BDT 9,590. However, over the due course of his experience and increment, he or she might already be receiving around BDT 9,000. Therefore, under the new wage structure, he or she will end up getting only a raise of BDT 590.

According to what Apparel Resources has learned and analysed, the unrest is mainly among the operators and senior operators who are receiving salary between BDT 7,500 and BDT 9,500; these operators have been demanding a comparative raise.

Uncertainty over salary and fear of getting sacked

Apparel Resources has learned that December-January is generally the time when workers remain in fear of being sacked. According to the workers who wish to remain anonymous, factory owners sack the higher-paid workers during this time period.

“Factory owners generally tend to fire higher paid workers during this period,” Khairul Mamun Mintu, Organizing Secretary, Garments Sramik Trade Union Kendra, told Apparel Resources. “But the main cause of this agitation is a misunderstanding. The factory owners have not really been able to convince the workers what their salary would be when they draw their salary next month (January). This has led to confusion among workers. But there is a disparity in the payment,” added the Organizing Secretary.

He further averred that “with the new wage structure, all the increments and performance bonus of the workers are being adjusted. It does not remain in the paygrade anymore, which is discriminatory. What the workers want is proper evaluation of merit.”

What the factory owners are doing?

BGMEA President Siddiqur Rahman speaking in an emergency press conference on December 15, 2018 on the labour unrest situation in Bangladesh

Siddiqur Rahman, President, Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association (BGMEA) has already issued strong messages to factory owners to curb the unrest. He suspects that there is a vested quarter that is instigating the workers.

Rafiqul Islam, Joint Secretary (Labour), BGMEA told Apparel Resources that the situation on the ground is ‘very unpredictable’ at the moment. “We are hoping that the situation will be better and the factories will resume production from Monday (December 17),” he added.

In order to arrive at a solution, the manufacturers initiated a tripartite meeting with the Labour Ministry and labour leaders on 15 December 2018. According to insiders, the meeting that was held at the Labour Ministry, concluded without a concrete solution.

A high-level insider of the BGMEA told Apparel Resources on condition of anonymity that the manufacturers will be going back to their factories and try to talk the workers out of the ongoing agitation. The government will increase vigilance in the industrial zones so as to identify any instigators of the labour unrest.

At a post-meeting press conference on the day, BGMEA President Siddiqur Rahman called upon the workers to come up with their problems to owners, or even the BGMEA, after drawing the salary. He threatened of closing down factories if labour unrest continues.

However, BGMEA still believes that there is an instigator party behind the unrest. It has urged the workers not to pay heed to such instigators and return to work.

Will the workers return to work?

The ongoing agitation had a moment of relapse through the weekend. After temporarily shutting down at least 60 factories on 13 December 2018, the workers were scheduled to resume work at factories after a three-day gap – two weekends and Victory Day holiday.

Over the weekend, there were no reports of agitation anywhere. Apparel Resources visited Savar and Ashulia areas and found out increased presence of Industrial Police deployed throughout numerous key areas.

This photo taken on December 13, 2018 shows Industrial Police guarding a factory in Savar, Dhaka, during labour unrest.

It has been learned that the ongoing unrest is mostly of impulsive nature. The employed workers fear that their increment over the last few years will wash away once the new wage is implemented and that the salary rates of the experienced workers will be almost the same as that of a new and inexperienced worker.

Since the manufacturers are yet to give a satisfactory response to this question, the workers movement are unlikely to subside. It also seems that the owners themselves are not clear over the issue, or are purposefully avoiding the topic at this moment.

Unless the owners arrive at a solution of evaluating merit and experience, the labour unrest is likely to continue and grow.

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