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'The Economy Runs on Our Toil': Record Protests Sweep Bangladesh

Over 50,000 demand 'dignity' in garment industry where majority-female workforce faces dangerous conditions and some of lowest wages in world

- Sarah Lazare, staff writer

Garment workers rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh Saturday, September 21 (Photo: Reuters / Andrew Biraj)50,000 garment workers demanding higher pay flooded the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh Saturday, and 20,000 shut down dozens of factories by walking off the job, in the largest demonstrations to ever sweep the notoriously dangerous and low-wage Bangladesh garment industry.

The protests continued on Sunday, with workers and their supporters blocking traffic, marching along a key highway, and clashing with police who shot rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds of thousands, the AFP reports.

"Our backs are against the wall, so we don't have any alternative unless we raise our voice strongly," Nazma Akter, president of the United Garments Workers' Federation, which groups 52 garment worker's groups, told Saturday's protest, Reuters reports. "We will not hesitate to do anything to realize our demand."

Bangladesh's garment industry is the second largest in the world, accounting for 80 percent of the country's annual exports. Its estimated 4 million workers, 80 percent of whom are women from rural areas, earn a paltry $38 U.S. dollars a month, making them some of the lowest-paid garment workers in the world.

Unions have demanded a wage increase that would bring them to a monthly wage of $100 dollars to lift workers out of deep poverty, but factory owners rejected the demand, offering a paltry 20 percent raise.

"We are not the object of mercy, the economy moves with our toil," Akter declared addressing Saturday's rally.

Bangladesh's garment industry has been swept with protests since the collapse of a factory in April killed more than 1,200 workers and injured over 2,500, with most victims women—one of many tragedies to sweep the country's dangerous garment industry. While the catastrophe captured global headlines, little has been done to improve the bleak conditions of an industry that sells to numerous U.S.-based corporations, including Walmart, Gap, Sears, Disney, and Benetton.

"[W]e want these jobs with dignity," Akter declared previously, "with safe working conditions, decent wages, and a voice in the workplace, and a unionized work place.”

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