RMG workers’ demand, BGMEA apathy and politicking minister
THE latest spate of labour unrest over wages in the readymade garment sector, which has over the past few days seen agitated workers clash with the police and other law enforcement agencies, vandalise factories and vehicles, and even attack an ansar camp in and around the capital Dhaka, has induced the familiar clichéd response from the Awami League-led government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association — that agent provocateurs assigned by certain vested quarters are instigating the turmoil to destabilise the apparel industry. If there was any provocation, it has come from the BGMEA itself in the form of its demeaning proposal for a Tk 600 increase in the minimum wage, from Tk 3,000 fixed in November 2010, on the eminently questionable rationale that such a raise is inflation-adjusted and thus justified, and that any further hike would translate into more losses for factory owners and could even lead to closure of a few factories and thus leave a number of people unemployed.
The minimum wage in the apparel sector is, and has always been, the lowest in the world. Even in Bangladesh, in comparison with many sectors, e.g. construction and timber (Tk 9,982), tannery (Tk 8,750), and oil mill and vegetable products (Tk 7,420), it fares quite poorly. As pointed out by different quarters, at home and abroad, the minimum wage in the apparel sector, which happens to be the major foreign exchange earner, has never been commensurate with the cost of living. A study pointed out recently that the minimum pay for RMG workers has remained static since November 2010 whereas their cost of living has increased at least 2.5 times in the meanwhile. Moreover, not only poor wages, many such issues as non-payment of arrears, overtime bills and festival allowances on time have often touched off strong discontent among workers. Besides, the factory owners as well as the government has more often than not dithered over issues related to workers’ well-being, including fire safety at and structural integrity of factory buildings, For example, even in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24, a planned inspection by two consortiums of North American and European Union buyers has yet to begin, although it was scheduled for a September 15 start. The same has been the case with the scheduled inspection by the government under an International Labour Organisation-funded project.
As for an agent provocateur, the recent workings by the shipping minister seem to perfectly fit the description. The minister, who, according to a report published recently in a leading Bangla daily, practically holds the road transport sector hostage to his whims and wishes, On Saturday, he featured in a rally of several thousand workers at Suhrawardy Udyan in the capital and extended support for the workers’ demand that their wages should be increased to Tk 8,114. Yet, he appeared reluctant to actively persuade the factory owners and simply sought ‘the prime minister’s intervention’, thereby lending credence to speculation that he may be out to bring the RMG sector under his arc of influence, for personal gain.
As it is, the apparel workers seem to have resigned to the fact that neither the government nor the factory owners are likely to address their genuine grievance and meet their legitimate demand until and unless they take to the street and, worse, resort to violence and vandalism. The nonchalance of the factory owners and the blatant politicking by the shipping minister could only add fuel to the fire, which could have dire consequences for the apparel sector and thus the economy. Hence, it is imperative that the workers’ genuine grievances need to be addressed, in terms of not only wages but also working conditions. Living wages for workers and compliance for all RMG factories would prevent labour unrest on the one hand and make the apparel sector sustainable on the other.
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