Bangladesh has been gripped by violent protests for two weeks, as thousands of garment workers take to the streets to demand better wages for the country’s four million garment workers.
Protesters clashed with police — resulting in the deaths of three workers. Unions there say police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and the protests have turned hostile.
“It’s escalating where it’s becoming more and more violent,” said Christina Hajagos-Clausen, the Textile and Garment Industry Director at IndustriALL Global Union, to which the unions in Bangladesh are affiliated.
On Tuesday, the country’s wage board announced an increase of $113 a month for garment workers, set to take effect December 1. That has been rejected by workers and labor groups who say wages have not been keeping up with inflation for the past five years. Inflation rose to 9% between 2022 and 2023 — the highest average rate in 12 years, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
Garment workers in Bangladesh currently make $95 a month producing clothes for big brands such as H&M, Zara and Levi’s. Workers are demanding $208 a month in wages. For comparison, that would still be less than the weekly wage Americans receive making the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour before taxes. Many labor groups in the US call that a poverty wage.
“It is not acceptable,” said Narza Akter, President of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, one of Bangladesh’s largest unions. “We feel that the workers of the garment industry have been made a mockery of by the board’s announcement… of the minimum wage. It is not logical at all. If the minimum wage is not set rationally, there is a risk of ongoing labor unrest, which is not desirable for either workers, employers, or the state.”
The protests have forced many factories in the country to close, paralyzing the world’s second biggest garment manufacturing hub after China. Dozens of protesters have ended up in the hospital. A protester set fire to a factory which caused the death of 32-year-old worker Imran Hossain, and intense clashes with police resulted in the death of 26-year-old Rasel Howlader, according to the US State Department.
“We are also concerned about the ongoing repression of workers and trade unionists. The United States urges the tripartite process to revisit the minimum wage decision to ensure that it addresses the growing economic pressures faced by workers and their families,” Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the State Department said Wednesday.
The industry employs some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country. Working conditions in the garment industry in Southeast Asia have been called into question before. But Bangladesh hasn’t seen protests with this level of violence for some 10 years since the devastating Rana Plaza collapse. The nine-story building was crammed with garment factories, and 1,100 people, mostly women, died in the disaster.
While conditions have since improved and wages have crept up, they have been vastly outpaced by the growth in value of the garment industry. Clothing exports from Bangladesh, which is aspiring to become a middle-income country by 2031, jumped from $14.6 billion in 2011 to $33.1 billion in 2019, according to the consultancy group McKinsey.
The manufacture of ready-made garments dominates the country’s industrial sector, which accounts for 35.1% of Bangladesh’s annual gross domestic product, according to the US Commerce Department.
What brands are saying
Eighteen brands including H&M, Levi’s, Gap, Puma, and Abercrombie & Fitch sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh last month urging peaceful negotiations and calling for the new minimum wage to cover basic workers’ needs. The American Apparel and Footwear Association, or AAFP, which represents brands in the US suggests a timelier minimum wage review. Currently the minimum wage gets reviewed every five years in Bangladesh.
“Ideally this wage level, which in Bangladesh informs the calculation of all wage levels, would be reviewed annually, not every 5 years. Ensuring timely reviews and, as needed, increases in these levels, is a critical part of the suite of better buying practices that responsible brands are deploying,” said Nate Herman, Senior Vice President of Policy, at AAFP in a statement to CNN.
Brands like H&M do not own any factories in Bangladesh, rather they contract with factory owners there who pay all the upfront costs: supplies, the facility and labor.
The Swedish giant told CNN that it recognizes “the important role we play to facilitate the payment of living wages through responsible purchasing practices,” in Bangladesh. H&M added that it does not “see any major impact on our overall production or supply chain,” because of the protests right now, even though some of the factories it works with have been shut.
CNN asked H&M for clarification on the role the company plays to facilitate paying living wages, but it did not respond.
Patagonia said it supports a minimum wage of $208 a month — exactly what workers are asking for.
“We source from one longtime factory partner in Bangladesh who makes some of our most technical products. Our supplier has made meaningful progress toward living wages, yet we know there is more we can do together,” the company said last month.
Levi Strauss & Co, meanwhile, said in a statement that it has “encouraged the Government of Bangladesh to establish fair, credible and transparent process for regular minimum wage setting.”
Brands do not have the power to set wages in Bangladesh, but they do have the power over pricing pressure. CNN reached out to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association which represents factory owners for comment but did not hear back.
“A lot of the pressure on factories, it does start with brands and retailers, and I think that it’s just a conversation that the fashion industry keeps trying to resist. But if we want to fix wages, we really have to fix the pricing problem,” said Elizabeth Cline a lecturer of Fashion Policy at Columbia University.
Nearly all the consumers of apparel made in Bangladesh are outside of the country. In 2019, garment exports accounted for 84% of Bangladesh’s total export earnings, according to the World Bank.
Consumers want things fast, cheap, and now — especially as consumer spending habits are leaning towards more affordable goods amid inflation. And while the younger generation of consumers are thinking about where their clothing comes from and how it gets made, the industry can’t count on consumers to raise wages says Jason Judd, Director of the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University.
“It takes a huge push by customers to move a brand to make a change,” said Judd.
During the pandemic brands cancelled $40 billion in orders at factories around the world, leaving factory owners and suppliers footing the bill and workers without wages. But through a grass roots labor movement on social media, the “Pay Up” campaign got brands to pay back $22 billion of the $40 billion owed, according to the Workers Rights Consortium.
But true change, Judd says, comes from policy and from within the country itself. Several labor activists CNN spoke to say what is happening on the streets of Bangladesh is reminiscent to what happened in Cambodia in 2014, when garment workers there were demanding higher wages after their government imposed a new minimum wage.
The government responded to the protests by sending in the security forces — killing at least three people after firing on workers. But reform followed. Cambodia now raises its minimum wage for garment workers once a year.
“Bangladesh needs a more rational, less violent, and more inclusive process. This has been done before. This is not reinventing the wheel,” said Judd.