Police try to convince garment industry workers to leave the streets

Garment industry workers confront police as they protest on the street demanding a wage raise in Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 12, 2023.

(Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Amid Holiday Shopping, Dems Back Bangladeshi Garment Workers in Wage Fight

"The historic challenges faced by garment workers in Bangladesh are part of a shared global struggle for good-paying jobs, safe working conditions, and the right to organize," said eight lawmakers.

The uprising of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh over chronically low wages in recent weeks has not gone unnoticed by U.S. lawmakers, eight of whom wrote to a leading apparel industry trade group Monday to demand its support for the workers.

Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) spearheaded the letter to the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), and co-signers include Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), David Trone (D-Md.), and Susan Wild (D-Penn.).

The lawmakers urged AAFA CEO Stephen Lamar to use his influence to help secure living wages for workers who help the $351 billion U.S. apparel industry run, noting that Bangladesh's wage board in October rejected the workers' minimum wage demand of $208 per month.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association offered just $90 per month—up from the $75 per month that workers now receive as a minimum wage, forcing them to work long overtime hours to make ends meet.

The wage increase "would not even meet the rising cost of living," wrote the lawmakers, calling the U.S. apparel industry's refusal to back the workers' demand of $208 per month "not only disheartening but shameful."

"While we were encouraged to see several U.S. brands express support for a wage increase and a fair, transparent wage setting process, words are not enough," said the Democrats, asking the AAFA to "pressure the government and garment manufacturers of Bangladesh."

Earlier this month, journalist Sonali Kolhatkar noted that the workers' campaign for fair wages has escalated as shoppers in the U.S. and other wealthy countries enjoy holiday sales.

"On the other side of the planet, there's a high cost for those low prices," wrote Kolhatkar at OtherWords.

She noted that the AAFA has asked the Bangladeshi government to respect collective bargaining rights and the U.S. State Department issued a statement commending U.S. clothing retailers "who have endorsed union proposals for a reasonable wage increase."

But Kolhatkar questioned whether U.S. companies are "really committed to raising garment workers' wages," pointing out that companies like Zara and H&M have "underpaid factories for garment purchases, making it harder for them to pay their workers."

In their letter Monday, lawmakers also raised alarm about Bangladeshi authorities' violent response to garment workers who have joined in mass protests in recent weeks.

"Police have responded with violence against protesters and trade union leaders, resulting in at least four deaths, numerous injuries, and a wave of unjust arrests, detentions, and indefinite factory shutdowns," reads the letter.

The lawmakers pressured the AAFA to "call for an immediate end to the violence perpetrated by police and other security forces against workers," urge authorities to stop arresting workers and union leaders, and demand an end to retaliatory tactics by garment industry suppliers in Bangladesh, which have filed "false criminal charges" against workers who have protested and subjected them to "dismissal, blacklisting, or other harassment."

"We believe that our actions abroad should always reflect our values at home," states the letter. "The historic challenges faced by garment workers in Bangladesh are part of a shared global struggle for good-paying jobs, safe working conditions, and the right to organize. When we support workers' rights in one part of the world, we bolster the fight for those rights everywhere."

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