Disgraceful £93 a month: Bangladesh government ignores the desperate demands of workers
On November 7, 2023, the Bangladesh Ministry of Labor proposed a new minimum wage of 12,500 taka (£93) for the country’s 4.4 million textile workers. This is far below the 23,000 taka demanded by the independent unions. According to studies, this amount would be necessary to bring those working in the textile industry above the poverty line.
The new minimum wage condemns workers to continue fighting for survival over the next five years. With such low wages, they rely on additional income to cover their basic living expenses: they have to work extra shifts beyond their normal 48-hour week, they have to take out loans or even skip meals to make ends meet. Starvation wages are also the main reason why parents sometimes feel forced to let their children work.
The highly non-transparent and biased process of setting the minimum wage in Bangladesh was accompanied by weeks of unrest. Workers across the country began protesting after the Textile Manufacturers’ Association (BGMEA) proposed raising the minimum wage to a meager 10,400 taka in October. At least three workers were killed and dozens injured during the protests after facing police violence in the form of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Legal proceedings are being initiated against many protesters, raising concerns about retaliation. The latest announcement could further fuel unrest.
Garment manufacturers in Bangladesh claim that they cannot afford a minimum wage of more than 12,500 taka. And some go so far as to say that this wage alone would drive some subcontractors out of business. However, it is the international fashion companies that dictate the purchasing prices and thus the scope for action in the industry. The prices that international fashion companies and brands pay when purchasing should enable factory owners to pay all workers at least a living wage. But the purchase prices paid in countries like Bangladesh are usually barely enough to pay the minimum wages that are below the poverty line.
Fashion brands failing to accept responsibility
Despite repeated calls by the Clean Clothes Campaign to international fashion brands to expressly support the union’s demand for a minimum wage of 23,000 taka, and to assure suppliers that they would increase purchase prices in line with the increase in labor costs, all brands, with the exception of outdoor equipment manufacturer Patagonia, refused to do this.
Many fashion companies that produce in Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex (Zara) and C&A, have long made living wage promises. But at such a crucial moment, when it really matters that brands use their huge influence to ensure that the people who make their clothes are no longer trapped in poverty, the companies have failed. Without concrete actions, only empty promises remain.
The Prime Minister has not yet formally brought the new minimum wage into force. It is now up to these fashion companies to put their words into action and ensure that workers in their supply chain in Bangladesh earn at least 23,000 taka. This would still not be a living wage, just the bare minimum that workers and their families need to make ends meet.
As was the case five years ago, the independent unions in Bangladesh have sharply criticized the formal wage setting process. They demand that the minimum wage be adjusted annually instead of every five years, as is currently the case. The unions also point out that employee representation on the wage board must be selected from the most representative union. This principle was disregarded in this and previous wage rounds; Instead, an “employee representative body” was set up that was sympathetic to the interests of employers and the government.
Finally, the independent trade unions point out that their proposal for 23,000 taka was reached on the basis of criteria set out in both the country’s labor law (Bangladesh Labor Law) and international labor standards (ILO Convention 131 on the Fixing of Minimum Wages) are required, whereas this was not the case with the employer’s proposal.