From RMG workers’ mouths

August 18

The delayed implementation of the newly announced wages sparked the recent protests by angry garment industry workers, dozens of workers said.

More than three of every four surveyed by The Daily Star said garment workers were the main force behind the protests demanding a hike in minimum wage to Tk 5,000 ($72) from the current Tk 1,662 ($24), fixed in 2006.

The new minimum wage was well below workers’ demand, but the unrest in Tejgaon, Ashulia and Narayanganj after the government set the Tk 3,000 ($43) wage on July 29, could have been largely avoided if it were effective immediately.

Instead, the roughly 80 percent wage hike occurs only on November 1. Garment workers will spend the year’s biggest religious festivals and spending season — Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha — with only a meagre survival wage.

The workers remained mum during negotiations, hoping the increase would come sooner. But when they became sure they would only receive the increased wage three months later, they took to the streets. Dhaka saw a violent demonstration in the early hours of July 30, a day after the wage announcement.

The interviews were with 34 randomly selected workers in Tejgaon and Ashulia industrial neighbourhoods. The Daily Star conducted an open-ended questionnaire in the weeks after the protests.

AVOIDABLE IF NOT DELAYED

Some 73 percent of the workers who were interviewed expressed anger for delayed new wage.

More than 60 percent of workers even said the unrest could have avoided if they were assured of getting the incremental salary before Eid, even though the increased wage is 40 percent below workers’ demand.

“We all hoped to get the increased salary ahead of Eid,” said Doly Akhter Sumi, who works at a garment factory at Tejgaon, Dhaka. “Instead of ensuring the hiked wage before, the government takes time again for three months.”

Some of the anger arose from suspicion that the new pay-scale will not be implemented in November, but will, upon the pleas of owners, be delayed still further.

“I doubt whether this will be implemented by November,” said the 22-year-old worker, who earns nearly Tk 4,500 a month, including overtime, working 8am to 7pm a day.

Labour Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain was surprised by the reaction, however, even though the unions are not freely elected. “No one told me that the movement was because of belated implementation,” he said.

“We did not anticipate that there would be any protest. We thought that workers would accept the new announcement, as we have fixed the new wage on the basis of discussion with owners and workers.”

Workers said the government had given them the impression that they would get the new wages paid, not just set, before Eid. When the real date came, they became frustrated.

“The government had earlier assured us of giving new wage before Ramadan,” said Habibur Rahman, who works at a garment factory in Tejgaon. “But it says the new wage will be effective three months later to please owners.

“Although the new minimum wage is lower than our demand, we would have accepted it if we got hiked salaries immediately,” said the 26-year-old worker, who earns around Tk 4,000 monthly at the current wage.

The minister denied ensuring increased pay before Eid: “Legally, it takes six months for implementation. But we have advanced it by three months for the sake of workers.”

But a top factory owner, on the condition of anonymity, said the government did a poor job of dispelling these worker expectations.

“There was a lack of communication on the part of the negotiators,” he said.

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