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  • Garment workers gather to protest for higher wages in Dhaka, Bangladesh, January 10, 2019.

    Garment workers gather to protest for higher wages in Dhaka, Bangladesh, January 10, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 10 January 2019

Garment workers in Bangladesh have walked out and demonstrated for five days demanding higher wages. 

Bangladeshi police fired tear gas and water cannons to break up tens of thousands of garment workers demonstrating for higher wages Thursday, forcing dozens of factories to close. Thursday marked the fifth day of protests.

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Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest garment exporter behind China. This week, the Bangladeshi government said it would consider demands for an increase in the minimum wage, after a protester was killed and dozens wounded when police shot rubber bullets at some 5,000 workers protesting Tuesday in the capital, Dhaka, and on the outskirts of the capital

Around 30 people were wounded Thursday as police fired tear gas to disperse stone-throwing protesters in the Ashulia industrial belt, on the outskirts of Dhaka, that accounts for nearly 20 percent of total garment exports.

Nearly 50 factories closed after thousands of workers took to the streets demanding higher wages, police official Rezaul Haque said.

“We had no other option but to use tear gas as they blocked a major highway,” Haque added.

The protests pose a problem for the government of Sheikh Hasina, who won a new presidential term in the Dec. 30 elections, which were marred by violence amid allegations of widespread rigging and voter intimidation.

The government said in September that the minimum wage for garment workers would increase by up to 51 percent this year to 8,000 taka (US$95) a month, the first such increase since 2013. Workers demand a minimum monthly wage of 10,000 taka (US$119).

Union leaders also say that increase will benefit only a small percentage of workers in the garment sector, which employs 4 million in a country of 165 million people.

Mohammad Abdullah, a demonstrator, said manufacturers have hired local musclemen to stop workers in other factories from joining the protest.

Low wages and trade deals with Western countries have made the garment sector a $30 billion industry accounting for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports. Brands like H&M, Zara, Walmart, Tesco, Kappa, Tommy Hilfiger, and Calvin Klein are among those that manufacture in Bangladesh.

Aside from low wages, the garment industry in Bangladesh has a poor workplace safety record. In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Savar killed at least 1,130 people.

"We urge the government to sit with us and settle the issue, otherwise the movement will continue," Ruhul Amin, executive president of the Garments Trade Union Centre said.

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