1,135 killed over wages of garment workers for world retailers

DHAKA - Bangladesh police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at garment workers who stitch clothes for Western retailers during clashes on Tuesday as demonstrations against low wages intensified, an officer said.

Some 40,000 workers downed tools and took to the streets in the Ashulia export zone on the outskirts of Dhaka for the second day, forcing around 200 factories to suspend production, police and factory owners said.

The workers are demanding a wage hike to $100 per month instead of the rise to $67 approved last week by the Minimum Wage Board after rounds of meetings with industry, unions and government representatives.

"The workers came out of their factories and blocked a key highway and went unruly in at least three separate spots," Ashulia industrial police inspector Abdus Sattar told AFP.

"They threw stones at police. We fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the protestors," he said.

Police would not comment on the casualties, but local media reported scores of people injured in the clashes.

At least 200 factories at Ashulia were forced to suspend production for the day, said S.M Manna, a vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), which represents 4,500 factories.

The board recommended raising the minimum monthly wage from 3,000 taka ($38) to 5,300 taka ($67), still the lowest in the world, according to union leaders, and well short of demands.

The BGMEA has rejected the $67 figure as too high, and urged the government against implementing it.

A union leader, Muhammad Ibrahim, told AFP that workers were demanding $100 as the minimum wage, but were also protesting in anger over the owners' rejection of the board's proposed rise.

Bangladesh is the world's second largest exporter of garments, with the industry employing some four million workers, mainly women, who produce clothes for leading retailers such as Wal-Mart and H&M.

The government pledged to raise wages by November, based on the board's recommendation, after strikes in September saw tens of thousands of workers take to the streets, torch factories and clash with police.

Protests over poor wages, benefits and working conditions are frequent in Bangladesh but have gained in intensity since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in April.

A total of 1,135 people were killed in what was one of the world's worst industrial disasters that also shone a global spotlight on the Bangladesh garment sector's appalling conditions and pay.