For over two weeks now, 50,000 Bangladeshi garment workers have been striking against a multi-billion-dollar fashion industry. The protests turned violent when Bangladeshi police opened fire on garment workers using rubber bullets; killing one worker and injuring 50 others. Since then, undeterred garment workers have been burning tires, blocking roads, and shutting down over 140 factories. Police have responded with an increased use of water cannons, tear gas and batons.
Allegations of corruption surround the government’s response strike. Bangladeshi Prime Minister won a fourth term on December 30th in an election that caused thousands of arrests and violence that workers say have continued over to the strikes. Many activists say that the harsh police response is the result of The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association, which has significant political influence over the government. Association President Siddikur Rahman told reporters, “We may follow the ‘no work, no pay’ theory, according to the labour law,” and warned that all factories might shut down if the strike was not quickly put down. Mohammad Abdullah, a striking worker, said manufacturers had hired local musclemen to stop workers in other factories from joining protests.
Striking garment workers are demanding a higher wage, an end to bad faith trade deals and protections against sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace. In an attempt to compromise, the Bangladeshi government has announced a 50% rise in wages for mid-level factory workers, but many workers say $95 a month no longer reflects the rising cost of living.
Striking workers also say that there is a clear disconnect between the amount of money garment workers make from the fashion industry and the amount that the fashion industry makes from them.
Bangladesh was the second largest exporter of fabric and apparel after China. 4,500 textile and clothing factories shipped more than $30 billion worth of materials last year, supplying companies like H&M, Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour and Aldi. It’s clear that garment workers played a key role in making a developing nation into a worldwide manufacturing hub, but garment unions say that working conditions have not reflected this. Bangladesh plans to expand the garment sector into a $50 billion-a-year industry by 2023, but many workers think this will be untenable unless working conditions are improved.