Bangladesh factory workers protest for higher wages and better working conditions, 2013

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Timing
Time Period:  
November
2012
to
December
2013
Location and Goals
Country: 
Bangladesh
Location City/State/Province: 
Dhaka
Location Description: 
Capital City of Bangladesh
Goals: 
1. Increase minimum wage by 170%

2. Improve working conditions for factory workers

3. Secure a list of those injured or killed in the Rana Plaza building collapse

4. Proper compensation for victims of Rana Plaza collapse

5. Legal consequences for the owner of the Rana Plaza building, Sohen Rana

 

Bangladesh, located to the east of India, is a leading global garment manufacturer, producing clothing for such American companies as Gap, Walmart, and J.C. Penney. The Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry makes up 80% of the country’s exports and employs about 4 million Bangladeshis, 80% of whom are women. A survey published by the Japan External Trade Organization in December 2013 reported that Bangladesh garment workers earn nearly the lowest monthly wage in the world, second only to Myanmar.

International attention focused in on the difficult working conditions of Bangladeshi factories as a result of two tragic factory incidences: the Tazreen factory fire and the Rana Plaza factory building collapse. During the night of 24 November 2012, a fire broke out in the Tazreen Fashions factory, located in the Nischintapur section of the nation’s capital city of Dhaka. 111 workers died, and 300 more were injured. Factory managers told the employees to continue working even as the fire spread, and those who tried to escape were often deterred by the iron bars that framed many of the windows.

In the days after the fire, garment workers from factories throughout the Dhaka region led street protests to demand from the company higher wages than the then-current monthly wage of about $37 (the lowest in the garment industry) and safe working conditions, and from the government, punishment for the factory owners who did not afford workers these safe conditions. The protesters specifically demanded the construction of fire emergency exits and stairways, exit doors that not locked from the outside, and less crowded work space. The protesters effectively blockaded one of the major highways in the area. Some protesters destroyed property, including vehicles and factory buildings. Since the exact leaders of the protest are unknown, it is difficult to say whether violence was planned or spontaneous. It appears that deep mistrust existed between the factory workers and the factory owners, as illustrated when the protesters continued to hold demonstrations after factory owners and one of the factory’s clients, Li and Fung, pledged to give 100,000 takas (1200 US dollars) to the families of each of the 111 victims.

In February and March of 2013, garment worker protests faded into the background of Bangladeshi politics. During this time, the nation was shaken by the Shabag protests in which Bangladeshis pushed for the capital punishment of members of the Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB), who had committed war crimes.

By spring, though, protests for better wages and better working conditions at Bangladeshi factories increased in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy. On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory building located in Savar collapsed, killing 1134 and injuring thousands. Workers immediately began protesting in such places as “Shyamoli, Kolyanpur, Technical Crossing, Gulshan, Mohakhali, Tejgaon Industrial Area, Malibagh and Karwan Bazar.” Others marched to and protested outside the headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers’ and Exporters’ Association (BGMEA), an organization made up of the factory owners. Police reported that some protesters damaged vehicles and factory property during the protests. In response to the protesters, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds.

As protests continued, eight workers’ organizations organized a day-long strike, known as a “hartal,” that paralyzed the city in May. Organization leaders, including Mushrefa Mishu of Garment Sramik Oikya Forum, called for the strike to be peaceful. Both the strikes and the protests caused the factories to shut down, at least temporarily, because there were no workers to produce the clothing and some protesters had damaged factory equipment necessary for production.

The protests gathered international attention. On 7 June, Sumi Abedin, who survived the Tazreen fire, and Kalpona Akter, who worked in the factories as a child, organized the “End Death Traps” Campaign through the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), a leading Bangladeshi labor rights advocacy group that Akter directed. In this campaign, they organized United States citizens to push US companies to address the poor working conditions and low wages of Bangladeshi factory workers. Meanwhile, back in Bangladesh, protesters blockaded the Dhaka-Aricha highway on 5 June.

On 27 June, the United States suspended the Generalized System of Preferences policy it had made with Bangladesh, in which the US charged Bangladesh reduced tariffs that saved Bangladesh 34.7 million US dollars each year. In response, Bangladesh passed a law designed to support trade union development. Prior to the passing of this law, unions needed to provide 30 signatures of factory workers willing to join the union to factory owners, but owners would often violently punish these workers. The law changed this policy so that factory owners would not be able to access the signatures. It did not, however, address the wage increases the workers demanded most.

By September, the government organized a wage board that would hold discussions on setting new wages for garment workers. When the factory owners announced they would only be willing to increase the wages by 20%, a much lower rate than the 170% increase workers were demanding, workers staged new protests across Dhaka, starting on 21 September 2013. They nonviolently blockaded the Dhaka Tangail Highway, but some protesters threw rocks and vandalized vehicles. Police continued to respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. In October, the factory owners agreed that they would accept whatever wage the wage board recommended, an announcement that put a halt to some protesting.

On Monday, 4 November 2013, though, once the wage board announced that it recommended a 77% increase for a wage of 5,300 taka, the workers barricaded the roads and vandalized vehicles because once again it was not the 170% increase they hoped for. In response, the police launched tear gas bombs and used batons against the protestors. During one protest, on 18 November, 2 workers were killed after clashing with police. Further protests erupted in response to these deaths.

Then, on 1 December, the government officially accepted the wage board’s proposal and increased minimum wage to 5,300 taka. Most unions accepted this increase under pressure from government officials and factory owners. Although the workers did not achieve as high a wage increase as they demanded, their nonviolent action was partially successful because it brought the wage increase up from the 20% that the factory owners initially proposed to 77%.

Later in December 2013, the owners of the Tazreen factory and 11 of their employees were charged with homicide for the death of 111 people in the factory fire in 2012. This occurred within the 2 year time period of analyzing the success of the campaign, so they were successful in this regard. It was not until 31 May 2015, 2 years 1 month after the Rana Plaza building collapse, that Sohen Rana, owner of Rana Plaza, and forty other people involved in the Rana Plaza building collapse, were accused of the murder of the 1134 victims. This occurred after the 2 year timespan, so they were not successful in this regard. In 2015, Bangladeshi factory workers continued to fight for increased rights by waging other campaigns.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The Bangladeshi garment workers were influenced by the previous minimum wage increase in 2010 (1). The protests were also spurred by the Tazreen factory fire in 2012 and the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013. (1).

Note that a survey taken in January 2014 found that about 40% of garment factories were not paying workers the new minimum wage, citing a drop in export orders from Western companies who were turned away from the uncovering of worker mistreatment. This led to backlogged payments, which influenced more protests in the summer of 2014 (2). See other database entry, http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/bangladeshi-garment-workers-fig....

Sources: 
Anon. 2013. “Bangladesh Approves Wage Hike for Garment Factory Workers.” Reuters. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151031032812/http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/21/us-bangladesh-garments-wages-idusbre9ak0id20131121).

Anon. 2014. “Bangladesh: Protect Garment Workers' Rights.” Human Rights Watch. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151031034011/https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/02/06/bangladesh-protect-garment-workers-rights).

Anon. 2015. “Bangladesh: 2 Years After Rana Plaza, Workers Denied Rights.” Human Rights Watch. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151031024702/https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/22/bangladesh-2-years-after-rana-plaza-workers-denied-rights).

Asokan, Shyamantha. "Bangladesh garment factory owners plan wage increase." The Star, 21 October 2013. Web. 22 November 2013. <https://web.archive.org/web/20151031024914/http://www.thestar.com/news/world/clothesonyourback/2013/10/21/bangladesh_garment_factory_owners_plan_wage_increase.html>

Beard, Katherine. 2013. “Bangladesh Garment Workers Continue Protest For Lower Wages.” US News RSS. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151031031946/http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/09/24/bangladesh-garment-workers-continue-protest-for-lower-wages).

Burke, Jason. "Bangladesh garment workers set for 77% pay rise." The guardian, 14 November 2013. Web. 20 November 2013. <https://web.archive.org/web/20151031025004/http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/14/bangladesh-garment-workers-pay-rise>

Butler, Carolyn. 2012. “Bangladesh Garment Workers Federation Pledges Action At Factory Level | Solidarity Center.” Solidarity Center Bangladesh Garment Workers Federation Pledges Action at Factory Level Comments. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151031033220/http://www.solidaritycenter.org/bangladesh-garment-workers-federation-pledges-action-at-factory-level/).

Conradt, Kate. 2013. “Bangladesh Reinstates Garment Worker Rights Group | Solidarity Center.” Solidarity Center Bangladesh Reinstates Garment Worker Rights Group Comments. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151031033029/http://www.solidaritycenter.org/bangladesh-reinstates-garment-worker-rights-group/).

Harris, Gardiner. 2013. “Bangladeshi Factory Owners Charged In Fire That Killed 112.” The New York Times. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/23/world/asia/bangladeshi-factory-owners-charged-in-fatal-fire.html).

Marriott, Red. "Highs and lows of a wage rise- the new garnet minimum wage." Libcom, 20 November 2013. Web. 21 November 2013. <https://web.archive.org/web/20151031025031/http://libcom.org/news/highs-lows-wage-rise-new-garment-minimum-wage-20112013>

Marriott, Red. "The legacy of the dead- the Savar Collapse, Part 2." Libcom, 24 May 2013. Web. 21 November 2013. <https://web.archive.org/web/20151031025102/http://libcom.org/news/legacy-dead-savar-collapse-part-2-24052013>

Marriott, Red. "Who can ride the garment tiger?" Libcom, 1 October 2013. Web. 21 November 2013. <https://web.archive.org/web/20151031025128/http://libcom.org/news/who-can-ride-garment-tiger-01102013>

Moskowitz, Peter. 2013. “Thousands Demand Higher Wages in Bangladesh Factory Protest.” Thousands demand higher wages in Bangladesh factory protest. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151031032251/http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/23/tens-of-thousandsprotestlowwagesinbangladesh.html).

Ogrodnik, Irene. "6 months later: What has changed since the Rana Plaza factory disaster?" Global News, 24 October 2013. Web. 22 November 2013. <http://globalnews.ca/news/922926/6-months-later-what-has-changed-since-the-rana-plaza-factory-disaster/>

Paul, Ruma. 2012. “Protests Rage over Bangladesh Factory Fire, Supervisors Arrested.” Reuters. Retrieved October 30, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/28/us-bangladesh-fire-idusbre8aq0we20121128).

Shingavi, Snehal. "Textile strikes rock Bangladesh." 24 August, 2010. Web. 20 November 2013. <http://socialistworker.org/2010/08/24/textile-strikes-rock-bangladesh>

Smith, Stirling. "Is Bangladesh's new minimum wage enough?" Ethical Trading Initiative, 15 November 2013. Web. 20 November 2013. <https://web.archive.org/web/20151031025453/http://www.ethicaltrade.org/news-and-events/blog/stirling-smith/is-bangladesh's-new-minimum-wage-enough>

"Striking Bangladeshi garment workers win a 77% pay rise." Libcom, 14 November 2013. Web. 21 November 2013. <https://web.archive.org/web/20151031025921/http://libcom.org/blog/bangladeshi-garment-workers-win-77-pay-rise-14112013>

Stuteville, Sarah. 2013. “‘End Death Traps’ Tour Puts Face on Garment Work in Bangladesh.” The Seattle Times. Retrieved November 15, 2015 (http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/lsquoend-death-trapsrsquo-tour-puts-face-on-garment-work-in-bangladesh/).

"Thousands of Workers Protest in Dhaka After 'Deadly Blaze'." Arab Times, 12 April 2013. Web. 20 November 2013. <http://www.arabtimesonline.com/NewsDetails/tabid/96/smid/414/ArticleID/190432/reftab/36/Default.aspx>

Ullah, Syed Ansar. n.d. “Tazreen Fire: Effect on Ready-Made Garments Sector in Bangladesh.” Textile Learner. Retrieved October 30, 2015 <https://web.archive.org/web/20151031030302/http://textilelearner.blogspot.com/2013/07/fire-of-readymade-garment-industry-in.html>

"Tazreen Fire- The Ground Realities." Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims. Web. 21 November 2013. <http://www.amrc.org.hk/system/files/Tazreen%20Report.pdf>

Yardley, Jim. "Bangladesh Takes Steps to Increase Lowest Pay." The New York Times, 4 November 2013. Web. 21 November, 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/world/asia/bangladesh-takes-step-toward-raising-38-a-month-minimum-wage.html?_r=0>

Additional Notes: 
New author, Meghan Kelly, is picking up this case during the fall semester 2015.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Meghan Kelly, 21/11/2015 and Lorielyn Cadiz, 22/11/2013