Some labour rights groups and unions have rejected both wage proposals

Some labour rights groups and unions have rejected both wage proposals

An alliance of labour unions and non-governmental organisations has strongly condemned the process to set a new minimum wage for Bangladesh garment workers – and is calling on brands sourcing from the country to take action.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) this week offered BDT6,360 (US$76) as a minimum monthly wage for entry-level workers, up from the US$68 set in 2013 (around $63 at current exchange rates). Labour organisations countered, calling for BDT12,020 (US$143) as a new minimum monthly rate.

But not only are the two sides far apart, some labour rights groups and unions have rejected both proposals, saying that the two plans fall short of the US$191 they have long demanded.   

The Clean Clothes Campaign says Bangladesh's garment industry employers' association has shown "utmost disregard" for workers' well-being and for their lives outside of garment factories. It says that the BGMEA proposal doesn't meet any living wage standard for Bangladesh, or remedy employers' disregard for the legally required increases over the past five years.

"We strongly condemn the proposal handed in by the BGMEA as well as the entire wage revision process so far," says Ineke Zeldenrust of Clean Clothes Campaign. "The proposed "increase" of the basic wage component from BDT3,000 to BDT3,600 that employers have put forward is nothing but playing catch-up with statutory demands – with a delay that has cost workers hundreds of dollars over the past years."

The current minimum wage of BDT5,300 was set in 2013, and it has ever since been widely criticised as insufficient for workers to meet even their most basic needs. This minimum wage is composed of a basic wage (BDT3,000), plus allowances for transport, medical expenses and food.

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, the 2013 Labour Amendment Act requires for the basic wage component to be increased by 5% every year. Yet, garment workers have reported that they have been deprived of this annual increase ever since the current minimum wage was implemented, which sheds an even more negative light on BGMEA's proposal.

In a letter sent in April to major brands sourcing from Bangladesh, Clean Clothes Campaign requested that brands demonstrate leadership on the way to a living wage by publicly: supporting workers' demand for the BDT16,000 minimum wage; making a long-term commitment to continue sourcing from Bangladesh after the wage increase; agreeing to increase their FOB price to allow for the wage increase to be met in practice and expressing concern over repression and harassment of trade union leaders.

So far, it says several brands have expressed their general support for a wage increase, but they have not meaningfully acted upon this.

"If brands truly want to support the genuine and fair engagement of workers in the negotiation process, they will speak out now. Silence means inaction," adds Zeldenrust. "Brands have the responsibility to ensure that workers producing the clothes they sell earn a living wage. We once again call upon all brands sourcing from Bangladesh to live up to their own proclaimed standards and to take action before the Minimum Wage Board meets again at the end of August."

With no sign of a resolution in sight, local reports say a number of protests are now set to take place into next month.

A march and rally is planned in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka tomorrow (20 July), while The Movement for Garment Workers' Rights – a platform of 12 worker organisations – has called a protest rally at Shahbagh on 21 July. The organisations will hold a token hunger strike in front of the BGMEA office on 25 July and in Chattogram on 27 July. There are also said to be demonstrations planned in the industrial areas from 25 July to 5 August.