DHAKA -- Bangladesh has set up a panel to raise the minimum wage for millions of garment workers, a minister said Sunday, as tens of thousands protested over poor conditions highlighted by a series of disasters.
"We've set up a minimum wage board for the garment sector. We did it in view of the workers' demand to hike their salaries,"said textile minister Abdul Latif Siddique told AFP.
A typical Bangladeshi garment worker takes home less than $40 a month, a wage that Pope Francis has condemned as akin to slave labor. Their minimum wage was last raised -- by 80% -- in November 2010.
The panel will include union representatives as well as factory owners, Siddique added. "There is no doubt the salaries will be hiked," he said.
The announcement came as the death toll from the country's worst industrial disaster climbed to 1,126, 19 days after a nine-storey garment factory complex in a suburb of Dhaka caved in and buried thousands of workers.
Workers at the country's garment-manufacturing hub of Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka left their factories en masse Sunday morning to demand an increase in wages.
"Up to 30 factories suspended production for the day as tens of thousands of workers refused to work," additional police chief of Dhaka, Shyamol Kumar Mukharjee said.They also demanded the death penalty for Sohel Rana, owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza complex, who was arrested at Bangladesh's main border crossing with India after a four-day manhunt last month.
He is accused of forcing laborers to work on April 24, the day of the collapse, even though cracks appeared in the building a day before.
Rana, a low-level official from the ruling Awami League party, is also accused of breaking construction laws by allowing factories to operate inside a commercial building designed for shops and banks.
The workers blocked a key highway for nearly two hours but no major violence was reported, Mukharjee said.
The discovery of a dead female garment worker in a factory at Ashulia also raised tensions, local police chief Bazlul Alam said, adding he suspected it was a suicide and possibly related to a "love affair."
Delwar Hossain, deputy managing director of the Ha-Meem Group where the victim worked told local news outlet that workers held a demonstration after her body was found.
The confirmed death toll in the Rana Plaza collapse was 1,126 Sunday and could still rise as cranes and bulldozers have yet to move all the rubble, senior government official Zillur Chowdhury said.
The nine-storey complex in the town of Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, made clothing for Western retailers including Britain's Primark, Spain's Mango and the Italian chain Benetton.
The government announced a high-level panel last week to inspect thousands of garment factories for building flaws, amid fears that Western labels would turn their backs on Bangladesh after a series of deadly accidents.
Last Thursday a garment factory fire in Dhaka killed eight people. Another fire last November killed 111 garment workers, the worst blaze in the history of the country's textile industry.
A total of 2,438 people were rescued from the ruins of Rana Plaze, which housed five garment factories.
There are around 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, churning out products for Western fashion labels which sell the clothing at many times the cost price.
The country is the world's second-largest apparel maker and the $20 billion industry accounted for up to 80% of annual exports last year.
-Shafiq Alam , AFP
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013