Up to 25,000 garment workers clashed with police in Bangladesh on Thursday, officials said, as protests rejecting a government-offered pay rise forced the closure of at least 100 factories outside Dhaka.
A government-appointed panel raised wages on Tuesday by 56.25 percent for the South Asian nation’s four million garment factory workers, who are seeking a near-tripling of their monthly wage.
Bangladesh’s 3,500 garment factories account for around 85 percent of its $55 billion in annual exports, supplying many of the world’s top brands including Levi’s, Zara and H&M.
But conditions are dire for many of the sector’s four million workers, the vast majority of whom are women whose monthly pay starts at 8,300 taka ($75).
Police said violence broke out in the industrial towns of Gazipur and Ashulia outside the capital after more than 10,000 workers staged protests in factories and along highways to reject the panel’s offer.
“There were 10,000 (protesting) workers at several spots. They threw bricks and stones at our officers and factories, which were open,” Mahmud Naser, Ashulia’s deputy industrial police chief, told AFP.
“One of our officers was injured. We fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the workers,” Naser said.
He said more than 100 factories were shut down in Ashulia and surrounding areas.
Thousands of workers also clashed with the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and police at Konabari and Naujore in Gazipur, with police using batons and tear gas to drive them into alleys, AFP correspondents at the scene said.
“Some 15,000 workers blocked the road at Konabari, and vandalised vehicles and other properties. We had to disperse them to maintain law and order,” Gazipur municipality administrator Sayed Murad Ali told AFP.
At least two injured workers were taken to hospital, police said.
The workers are seeking a wage rise to 23,000 taka and unions representing them have rejected the panel’s increase as “farcical”.
Police say at least three workers have been killed since the wage protests broke out in key industrial towns last week, including a 23-year-old woman shot dead on Wednesday.
At least six police officers have also been injured in the protests.
Unions say the panel’s wage increase fails to match soaring prices of food, house rents and schooling and healthcare costs.
They have also accused the government and police of arresting and intimidating organisers.
“Police arrested Mohammad Jewel Miya, one of the organisers of our unions. A grass-roots leader… was also arrested,” Rashedul Alam Raju, the general secretary of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Federation (BIGWUF), told AFP.
Another union leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least six union leaders had been arrested and unions were being threatened by police to call off the protests and accept the wage offer.
There was no immediate comment from police about the arrests.
The United States has condemned violence against protesting Bangladeshi garment workers and “the criminalisation of legitimate worker and trade union activities”.
In a statement, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller urged the panel “to revisit the minimum wage decision to ensure that it addresses the growing economic pressures faced by workers and their families”.
Thea Lee, the US Department of Labor’s deputy undersecretary for international affairs, called for the release of BIGWUF organiser Miya.
The Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign, a textile workers’ rights group, has also dismissed the new pay level as a “poverty wage”.
The minimum wage is fixed by a state-appointed board that includes representatives from the manufacturers, unions and wage experts.