Bangladesh Shuts Garment Factories Over Protests

In three days, over 50 factories have been vandalized by protesters.

As police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at tens of thousands of protesting workers, Bangladeshi manufacturers shut all garment factories in a major industrial zone on June 22.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, which represents the country's factory owners, said days of violent protests had created "panic and anarchy" and forced factories to close indefinitely.

"In three days, over 50 factories have been vandalized by protesters making it impossible for manufacturers to meet buyer deadlines, leading to millions of dollars of losses," BGMEA vice-president Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin said.

"We cannot run our factories -- our security is inadequate to protect us from the rampaging protesters. Our survival is at stake," he said, adding the unrest threatened the country's reputation as a garment producer.

Thousands of workers turned up for work in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia on June 22 and, after learning of the closures, began protesting and attacking police, Dhaka district police chief Iqbal Baharsaid. "The workers pelted police with rocks. They burnt tires in the roads and attacked vehicles. Police were forced to shoot rubber bullets and lob tear gas shells," he said, adding some protesters had been hurt.

On June 21, tens of thousands of laborers walked out of factories and staged a four-hour protest in Ashulia, situated 20 miles north of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the workers who retaliated by pelting stones and rocks at the law-enforcers. Thousands also went on the rampage, ransacking factories and torching at least four cars.

The latest series of protests over low wages erupted on June 19 when 50,000 workers clashed with police, turning Ashulia into a battlefield.

Bangladeshi workers, who make clothes for major Western brands such as Wal-Mart and H&M, have been demanding wages of at least 5,000 taka (US$70) per month. The current minimum wage is just $25.

"The minimum wage in Bangladesh's garment sector is the lowest in the world. The cost of living has increased 10%-15% a year but salaries have not been adjusted," said Ifty Islam of Asian Tiger Capital, an investment bank. "The owners must compromise and need to cut profit to raise workers wages to a level which is acceptable."

"Western retailers who preach corporate social responsibility also must recognise that they need to raise their order prices. And consumers in the West should be ready to pay higher prices," he said.

This week's violent protests follow a series of labor disputes at Ashulia and Kanchpur -- the country's two main apparel hubs -- where most factories making clothing for international brands are located.

Retailers including French giant Carrefour and Levi Strauss wrote to the prime minister in January requesting across-the-board wage increases. Current wages are "below the poverty line" and have "contributed to unrest" among workers, the letter said.

Garments accounted for nearly 80% of Bangladesh's $15.56 billion of exports last year. The factories employ around 40% of the industrial workforce.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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