Staff Correspondent: When Masuma Akhter arrived at the garment factory where she worked on the outskirts of Dhaka on October 31, she expected a normal change. Instead, he faces brutal violence. Akhter says, “The moment I walked through the gate of the factory, a group of armed men started beating me with wooden sticks. I fell to the ground. Still, they did not stop beating me.”
Twenty-two-year-old Akter is a seamstress at Deco Knitwear in Mirpur. While Akter spent long hours churning out clothes for Western fashion brands (owned by Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein), including Marks & Spencer, C&A and PVH Corp.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest producers in the world of fast fashion, producing millions of tons of clothing every year to meet the demands of the world’s most popular clothing brands.
Because in this small South Asian country, the required labor is cheap. Although most fast fashion brands in Bangladesh claim to support a living wage, the minimum monthly wage they legally pay workers is the lowest in the world and has been set at Tk 8,000 (£58) since 2018.
Talks over a new minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh have sparked mass protests in the streets of the country’s capital. Protests have escalated since the government announced an increase in the minimum wage for workers to Tk 12,500 (£90) from December 1, with workers demanding a minimum wage of Tk 23,000 a month to save their families from starvation.
Factory owners and police responded to worker protests with threats and violence. Akhtar’s arm was broken after being beaten up by armed men in deco knitwear.
“They hit me repeatedly on my back, my thigh and my arm,” he said. One of the unfortunate workers’ hands was broken due to the heavy blow. He is unable to work. Masuma Akhtar is going to sleep at night thinking about how she will spend the remaining days of the month.
Other workers at Deco Knitwear say most of the attacks target their hands and arms. Bushra Begum, another 25-year-old garment worker, said, “They started beating us mercilessly. My livelihood depends on my hand and they have brutally targeted it”.
His colleague Rita Anwar (26) tried to escape but was chased down the street by three men. He says – “I have blood clots all over my body. So much pain that I can’t walk properly.” Before leaving, the men threatened the workers not to take part in any more protests – or the results would not be good.
As protests in Dhaka turned increasingly violent, two garment workers were allegedly shot dead by police in the first wave of protests. Another woman died after being shot in the head last Wednesday. Factory owners have also threatened to halt production and freeze wages by enforcing the “no work, no pay” rule.
Over the weekend, more than 150 factories closed “indefinitely” as police issued ‘blanket charges’ for 18,000 workers in connection with the protests. Workers were threatened with dismissal if they continued to protest, and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association called for all factory hiring to be suspended, making it difficult for protesters to find work elsewhere.
But despite the violent crackdown on workers, workers speaking to the Guardian said they would see the end of it. Naima Islam, machine operator of Columbia Garments said “They are trying to silence us but we will not back down. They can threaten and beat us but what they don’t understand is that we have nothing to lose. If we accept their ridiculous wage offer, we will die of starvation anyway.”
Islam (28), is one of the thousands of protesters against whom a police report has been lodged. Trade unions fear mass arrests may begin soon. Many see this as an attempt to forcefully suppress the wage hike movement. But this move did not faze Islam and his colleagues. “We are not asking for much,” he says.
This whole industry is built on our backs – we have to give what we need to survive.”
Local trade union Somilito Garments Workers Federation president Najma Akhtar condemned the violence against the protesting workers. He said, “The government of Bangladesh must ensure that workers are able to exercise their right to freedom of association and collective bargaining without violence, reprisal or intimidation.”
In a statement, Marks & Spencer said: “These are very serious allegations and we are investigating them urgently. We will never tolerate violence or intimidation of workers and state very clearly in our Global Sourcing Policy that workers must be guaranteed freedom of association and safe workplaces as well as fair and transparent wages. As a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, we have supported tripartite minimum wage negotiations between unions, government wage boards and employers’ associations – and we continue to support cross-sector calls for an increase that gives workers a healthy living.”
A C&A spokesman said: “We are aware of the incident in Bangladesh, and we are in close contact with the supplier to investigate. We condemn all forms of violence and have a longstanding commitment to ensuring the safety and health of all workers in our supply chain.”
PVH did not respond to a request for comment. Deco Knitwears and Columbia Garments – were contacted but declined to comment. Fashion brands sourcing from Bangladesh have said they support workers’ demands for higher minimum wages. In a joint letter in September, brands including Asos, Primark and H&M wrote that they were aware of their role in “developing wages”. But rights groups argue that doesn’t mean much unless brands agree to pay their suppliers more.
Human Rights Watch and the Clean Clothes Campaign have called on brands to take responsibility for their workers’ wages and pay their suppliers more.
Aruna Kashyap, associate director of corporate accountability at Human Rights Watch, said: “Wage hikes cost suppliers and do not benefit them. Brands themselves are paying low wages through their unfair pricing and purchasing practices. To preserve their own profits, brands are protecting their own interests.”
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