Looming threats of sanctions on labour issues have raised eyebrows among the government, policymakers, garment entrepreneurs and industrial bodies.
Most ready-made-garments (RMG) factories have failed or partially implemented international compliance and ethical practices, which has ignited labour unrest.
Recently, Bangladesh has witnessed intense labour unrest and violent protests related to wage disputes in the garment industry. The dispute on fair wages for RMG workers has sparked widespread protests demanding against the government’s Wage Board decision to increase BDT 12,500 ($113) per month for garment workers, effective from 1 December.
The labour groups rejected the new wage structure due to its inadequacy in addressing their financial needs. The unions dismissed the decision, arguing that the pay hike does not adequately address the rising costs of food, housing, healthcare, and school fees for their children.
The prices of essentials have dramatically risen and the wages of workers cannot meet both ends. Inflation in Bangladesh rose to 9 per cent between 2022 and 2023, the highest average rate in 12 years.
The garment industry employs some of the poorest and most vulnerable people recruited from rural areas. Ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions remains a critical challenge for the industry.
The garment industry in Bangladesh employs some of the poorest and most vulnerable people, making fair wages and safe working conditions critical issues.
Thousands of garment workers took to the streets, demanding better wages for the country’s four million garment workers. The worker’s agitation escalated and clashed with the riot police.
Police lobbed hundreds of tear gas shells and fired rubber bullets which failed to contain the riots.
The worker’s protests led to shut down of scores of factories, paralysing Bangladesh’s position as the world’s second-largest garment manufacturing hub after China.
At least three workers were killed during the protest and 70 factories ransacked since. Tragically, protesters set fire to a factory, resulting in the death of a worker named Imran Hossain.
The police shot and killed another worker, Rasel Howlader. Among them was Anjuara Khatun, a 26-year-old machine operator at a factory in Gazipur, north of the capital.
The worker’s protest has coincided with other anti-government demonstrations when the opposition is demanding that Hasina step down, cancel the election schedule and hold the national election under an interim government. The demands seem to have fallen flat.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged the garment workers to return to work with the newly-announced wages. Bangladesh’s 3,500 garment factories contribute to approximately 85% of the country’s USD 55 billion in annual exports, supplying major global brands including Levi’s, Zara, and H&M.
Hasina threatened the workers, that if they continue to abstain from work despite the wage increase, she stated, “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. If these factories are closed, if production is disrupted, and exports are disrupted, where will their jobs be? They (workers) have to understand that.”
The majority of the workers slowly returned to work. Which means they have accepted the new wage announced by the government.
Immediately, the US State Department expressed concern about the ongoing repression of workers and trade unionists. Washington urged a tripartite process to revisit the minimum wage decision to address the economic pressures faced by workers and their families.
The Bangladesh embassy in Washington DC on 20 November raised concerns that Bangladesh might face stringent measures, including sanctions, trade penalties, and visa restrictions outlined in the US Presidential Memorandum on labour rights.
While the memorandum has global implications and is not specifically targeted at Bangladesh, recent weeks of labour unrest in the country’s readymade garment industry, centred on demands for improved pay and marked by violent clashes with the police resulting in at least four worker fatalities, have prompted the embassy to issue a warning to Dhaka.
After the call from the USA, good sense prevailed upon President Mohammad Shahabuddin has sent back the Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Bill, 2023 without giving his assent.
The two sub-sections of Section 294 of the Labour Act, 2006, propose to amend some of the penalties for illegal labour strikes and illegal lockouts by employers.
The law provides for imprisonment of up to six months or a fine of up to BDT 5,000, or both if a worker goes on an unlawful strike. There is a legal provision that any factory owner will also face the same punishment if he makes an illegal lockout.
Interestingly, in 2023, the amendment to the law, which was passed in Parliament, increased the fine in case of illegal strike of workers from BDT 5,000 to 20,000. But in the case of the owners, the fine has been kept at the same as before (BDT 5,000).
In the national election fever, there will not be any parliament session. The fresh bill will have to be placed in the parliament next year.
On the other hand, many garment industries have fallen short of fully implementing international compliance guidelines. In the context of the garment industry, adherence to international compliance guidelines is crucial for ensuring ethical and safe working conditions. While some garment industries fully implement these guidelines, others may only partially comply.
Additionally, compliance covers various other aspects such as equal remuneration, anti-discrimination policies, child labour abolition, and safety measures to ensure adherence to guidelines, which create a favourable working environment for their employees.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers Export Association (BKMEA), and Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF) are expected to play a crucial role in monitoring factories to ensure ethical practices, fair wages, and safe working conditions in RMG industry.
A recent survey by Quality Inspection, Management, and Assurance (QIMA), a global company that offers quality inspections, audits, and testing services, ranked Bangladesh second in “Ethical Manufacturing,” just behind Taiwan.
Bangladesh’s local suppliers in the international supply chain have been recognised for their good practices.
A day ago, ruling Awami League’s President Sheikh Hasina told the leaders of the 14-party that a conspiracy was being hatched over the election. Without naming Uncle Sam, she said that sanctions may come.
Hasina, pointing fingers towards the United States said, is trying to make the Awami League government uncomfortable over the labour issue. “Where will you find cheap labourers producing at competitive prices? I will also see. I am not afraid of domestic and foreign conspiracies.”
She warned that a new crisis may arise after the election. “If I survive, I will overcome this,” Hasina snapped.