150 Bangladesh garment factories shut, 11,000 workers charged

Bangladeshi garment manufacturers on Saturday shuttered 150 factories “indefinitely”, as police issued blanket charges for 11,000 workers in connection with violent protests demanding a higher minimum wage, officers said.

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, until recently, started at 8,300 taka ($75).

Violent protests demanding better pay erupted last month, with at least three workers killed and more than 70 factories ransacked or damaged since, according to police.

A government-appointed panel raised the sector’s wage by 56.25 percent on Tuesday to 12,500 taka, but garment workers have rejected the hike, instead demanding a 23,000 taka minimum wage.

On Thursday, 15,000 workers clashed with police on a key highway and ransacked Tusuka, a top plant, along with a dozen other factories.

“Police have filed cases against 11,000 unidentified people over the attack on Tusuka garment factory,” police inspector Mosharraf Hossain told AFP.

Bangladesh police often issue primary charges against thousands of people — without specifying their names — following large protests and political violence, a tactic that critics say is a way to crack down on dissent.

Police officials told AFP that 150 factories had closed in the key industrial towns of Ashulia and Gazipur, both north of the capital Dhaka, as manufacturers feared further strikes when Bangladesh’s working week began on Saturday.

“The manufacturers invoked Section 13/1 of the labour laws and shut 130 factories at Ashulia indefinitely citing illegal strikes,” Sarwar Alam, head of police in the manufacturing hub, told AFP.

Wage protests pose a major challenge to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 2009.

A resurgent opposition has challenged her rule as she readies for elections due before the end of January.