Workers protested for weeks for higher wages. Labour and employers are in a constant tug-of-war. The garment sector is worth US$ 30 billion and employs at least 4,1 million people.
Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Almost 5,000 Bangladeshi garment workers were sacked by employers for taking part in strikes, police said Tuesday.
The labour action, which lasted weeks, affected an industry that is worth an estimated US$ 30 billion. Those dismissed have been accused of theft and vandalism, whilst unions accuse employers of intimidation against the workers.
"Garments are the most important industry in the country,” an anonymous local source told AsiaNews. “It is always a compromise between unfettered exploitation and the demand for higher salaries, but the latter is incompatible if the country wants to be competitive with China and India."
Protests lasted for weeks in the Dhaka, Savar and Gazipur triangle. One worker died in clashes with police and 50 people were injured. "Even now, protests continue, but they are not even reported in the press,” the source explained.
Garment workers are angry about wage increases granted to new workers. In late December, the monthly salary rose from 5,300 to 8,000 taka (from US$ 63,30 to US$ 95.50) for level 7 workers, whilst for workers with 7-8 years seniority the increase was only 500 taka (US$ 6).
In mid-January, owners granted the same increase to all types of contracts. However, when workers went back to work, they found out that many jobs had been cut. In one factory, 1,200 garment workers were dismissed. For unions the number of people fired is much higher, around 7,000.
Companies suffered major losses as well. Every day lost in one factory in Savar that employs 6,000 workers meant 24,000 pieces not produced.
Bangladesh "does not produce raw materials, but transforms them and then exports them,” the source explained. “Therefore, to remain competitive in Asia and worldwide, it must keep wages low in an ever-shifting balance. This context certainly favours abuses by companies."
After the overwhelming victory of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in recent parliamentary elections, "it seemed possible to increase salaries, even though for many what was offered was insufficient. By now we are almost used to this tug-of-war between workers and employers, with political and union infiltrations."
The source says that "there have been so much violence. People expect that a strong government like the one we have will not tolerate violence. However, Hasina has no interest in labour troubles when her ratings are high."
“It will be hard for workers involved in acts of vandalism to get their job back,” the source explained. “For employers it will be easy to find people to replace them.”
In Bangladesh, the garment industry, especially the export sector, is a cornerstone of the country’s economy, making it the second garment exporter in the world after China.
At least 4,500 textile and clothing factories employ 4.1 million workers, working for some major Western labels – both luxury and low-cost – like H & M, Zara, Walmart, Tesco, Kappa, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
The workforce is made up mostly of women and working conditions are poorly regulated. Work-related accidents are commonplace. The most serious incident occurred in 2013 when the Rana Plaza complex in Savar collapsed killing more than 1,300 people.