After much deliberation, and violent demonstrations from workers, the minimum wage board for the readymade garment (RMG) sector finalised Tk 12,500 as the lowest grade monthly salary, leaving in the lurch many workers who have been demanding at least Tk 23,000.
Following the announcement on Sunday, trade unions rejected the decision citing the amount as insufficient, and announced the continuation of peaceful protests to press home their demand of a living wage amid skyrocketing inflation.
Although not complying with the minimum salary demand, the board has reduced the salary grades from seven to four by removing grades one, two and six. It had proposed five grades in their draft gazette published back in November this year.
The finalisation of minimum salary for RMG workers came on the seventh and final meeting of the minimum wage board, held at the Ministry of Labour and Employment in the capital. Board Chairman Liaquat Ali Mollah announced the new salary structure for nearly 4 million workers.
At a press briefing, Liaquat said “After issuing the draft wage gazette for RMG workers on November 11, the board had received 173 appeals from the owners and 25 from the representatives of trade unions.
“The board evaluated the appeals and finalised the new wage structure.”
Present at the announcement, owners’ representative of the board Md Siddiqur Rahman said, “Despite the poor business atmosphere, we agreed to increase the minimum salary by more than 56 per cent.
“Many workers demonstrated after the announcement of the minimum wage proposal on November 7. But we believe that someone misled them.”
A battle for living wages
Since last year, trade unions have been holding demonstrations demanding an increase in RMG workers’ salary. The unions formed six individual alliances, and five of them demanded Tk 23,000 as monthly minimum salary, while the remaining one demanded Tk 25,000.
They also sought the elimination of grades five and six citing those unnecessary, 65 per cent basic salary compared to gross, annual 10 per cent increment instead of 5 per cent, six months of maternity leave instead of four, and auto grade promotion after two years.
However, the board did not consider any of these demands, and eliminated grades 1, 2 and 6 from seven in previous 2018 wage structure. It however revised the salary of workers falling under newly established grades 1, 2, and 3.
As per the new wage structure, the highest wage for a RMG worker has been fixed at Tk 15,035, which is only Tk 2,535 higher compared to the grade five – the lowest category.
Mofiz, who works at a readymade garment factory in Ashulia, was patiently waiting for a much-needed boost in his monthly salary to tackle the ever-increasing costs of living and to better take care of his family.
Working for seven years in the RMG industry, Mofiz is currently getting Tk 8,750. He was hoping for a reasonable hike in the new wage structure, but his optimism has been dashed.
Sharing his disappointment with The Business Post, Mofiz said, “We had demanded a minimum wage of Tk 23,000 per month, but the new figure is nowhere near the amount. The new wage structure barely makes a dent in the RMG wage issue.”
In an immediate response, the Garment Workers’ Trade Union Council (GWTUC) said that the wage structure is not enough for a worker to cover his living costs.
A GWTUC press statement read, “The minimum wage is not sufficient for a worker when the soaring inflation is taken into account. Besides, the difference between a worker and a skilled operator is not that much.
“That is why the new wage structure is not acceptable for RMG workers. We will continue our peaceful protests until our demands are met.”
The leaders also said in the new wage structure, workers’ rights and demand have been completely ignored, and the board accepted only the owners’ proposal.
How events unfolded
The government formed a new wage board on April 9 this year to review RMG workers’ salary. The owners proposed Tk 10,400 to the board as minimum wage on October 22, while the workers’ representative demanded Tk 20,393.
In the aftermath of the owners' proposal, agitated workers took to the streets on October 23, and the protests turned violent from October 29, when the police removed them from streets by force, and fired tear shells, sound grenades, rubber bullets and bullets.
Workers torched two factories, numerous vehicles, and vandalised factories, which forced owners to shut nearly 500 establishments.
Amid the situation, State Minister for Labour and Employment Monnujan Sufian announced Tk 12,500 as minimum salary for an entry-level RMG worker on November 7, saying, “The salary is verbally set by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.”
Trade unions and thousands of workers rejected the proposal citing the figure as insufficient, and announced continued protests.
On November 8, workers again took to the streets and clashed with law-enforcement agencies. The government deployed 48 platoons of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) to control the situation.
During the clash, which started from October 29, at least four workers were killed, hundreds got injured, and a hundred were arrested and sent to jail in connection with the acts of violence. Most of the workers later secured bail from the court.
Besides, the BGMEA claimed that their members have been forced to shutter at least 78 factories as per the labour law’s section 13/1, which means “no work, no pay.”
As the situation cooled down following police action, most of the closed factories resumed production from November 15. Leaders of trade unions claim that workers were not involved in the vandalisation of factories, and the police are harassing protestors to halt protests.
On November 8, the US Department of State condemned the “attack” on RMG workers, and asked to create an environment for peaceful workers’ demonstration.
The European Union delegation led by Paola Pampaloni, Managing Director (Acting) for Asia and Pacific Department at the European External Action Service (EEAS) also raised concerns regarding the unrest and death of workers, in a meeting with the BGMEA on November 14.
Besides, Buyers Office Representative Forum in Dhaka, also known as the Buyers Forum, has expressed dissatisfaction over the ongoing readymade garment workers’ unrest.
They later promised to make a sincere effort to increase RMG sourcing prices to help implement the new wage structure.