Bangladesh’s prime minister has offered a stern response to striking garment workers amid deadly clashes over pay.
After unions rejected a government offer, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Friday rejected the demands of the protesting workers for a higher pay rise.
The premier insisted that they accept the offer on the table or “go back to their village”. Union leaders expressed concern that her words could provoke more violence from police and security forces.
Large protests have resulted in at least three deaths over the past two weeks. In response, a government-appointed panel agreed on Tuesday to raise the minimum wage by 56.25 percent to 12,500 taka ($113).
However, unions swiftly rejected the offer, demanding instead 23,000 taka ($208), and the unrest has continued.
Bangladesh’s 3,500 garment factories account for about 85 percent of the country’s $55bn in annual exports, supplying many of the world’s top brands including Levi’s, Zara and H&M.
But conditions are dire for many of the sector’s four million workers, the vast majority of whom are women whose monthly pay starts at 8,300 taka ($75).
“I would say to the garment workers: they have to work with whatever [level to which] their salary is increased, they should continue their work,” Hasina told a meeting of her ruling Awami League party on Thursday evening.
The protests have left at least three workers dead and more than 70 factories ransacked since last week, according to police.
“If they take to the streets to protest at someone’s instigation, they will lose their job, lose their work and will have to return to their village,” Hasina added.
“If these factories are closed, if production is disrupted, exports are disrupted, where will their jobs be? They have to understand that.”
Hasina said 19 factories were “attacked and destroyed”, businesses that “give them bread and butter and food and employment”.
‘Climate of fear’
A union leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hasina’s speech had created a “climate of fear” in the industry, warning it had given security forces permission to crack down further on protests.
Police have arrested more than 100 protesters, including several union leaders, over charges of violence and vandalising factories, two police officers told the AFP news agency.
On Thursday, police reported violence in the key industrial towns of Gazipur and Ashulia, outside the capital, Dhaka, after more than 25,000 workers staged protests in factories and along highways to reject the wage panel’s offer.
Rashedul Alam Raju, a garment union leader, urged Hasina to listen to workers’ demands.
“The prime minister can raise the wages after reconsidering the situation,” Raju said.
However, Hasina said that garment workers have been offered a bigger raise than civil servants.
“Government officers have got a five percent hike, since there is inflation all over the world – and they [garment workers] will get 56 percent raise,” she said.
But union leaders retorted that the level of the respective wages is incomparable.
Unions said they dismissed the government’s offer because the pay increase does not match the soaring cost of food, rent, healthcare and school fees for their children.
The Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign, a textile workers’ rights group, dismissed the new pay level as a “poverty wage”.
“If brands backed the 23,000 taka [$207] amount demanded by trade unions, and committed to absorbing the cost of the wage increase, workers would not have to go out on the streets and protest,” group spokesman Bogu Gojdz told AFP.
“We see living wage-committed brands – such as ASOS, Uniqlo, H&M, C&A, M&S, Aldi and Next – as particularly responsible in this situation,” Gojdz added.
“While they claim to be committed to paying their workers fair wages, they refuse to support the bare minimum wage workers need to survive.”
Washington has condemned violence against protesting workers.
The United States, which is one of the largest buyers of Bangladesh-made garments, has called for a wage that “addresses the growing economic pressures faced by workers and their families”.