Bangladesh garment workers reject proposed pay hike

DHAKA - Bangladeshi garment workers on Thursday rejected a proposed 50 per cent wage rise and there were fears of fresh strikes in the crisis-hit industry if the impasse was not quickly resolved.

A meeting of a board of government officials, garment manufacturers and union leaders failed to finalise a rise in the minimum wage for the four million workers who stitch clothes for top Western brands.

Labour leader Sirajul Islam Rony said unions rejected as too low the manufacturers' formal offer of 4,500 taka (S$69.66) a month including a food allowance, up from the 3,000 taka (US$38) minimum wage set in 2010.

"We can't accept it. It's nowhere near our demand," Rony told reporters after the Minimum Wage Board's three-hour meeting.

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 to demand an increase.

Unions are demanding a wage of 8,114 taka (US$102), saying the proposed rate does not ensure decent living standards nor keep up with inflation.

Owners' representative Arshad Jamal Dipu said manufacturers were ready to make their offer, tabled at the meeting, effective from November. He dismissed the unions' figure as "unrealistic".

"The manufacturers don't have the capacity to raise wages beyond 4,500 taka," he said, adding that they were concerned unions might again call protests to press their demand.

The board will meet again next week, after its chairman asked unions and manufacturers to reconsider their stances.

"They have assured us that they would come back with a positive proposal by November 4," chairman A.K. Roy told reporters.

Protests over poor wages, benefits and working conditions are frequent in Bangladesh but have gained in intensity since the April collapse of a factory complex that killed 1,135 people in one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

Bangladesh is the world's second largest clothing exporter after China and the US$22 billion (S$27.28 billion) industry is a mainstay of the economy. But wages are well below those in other major garment-making nations including China, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, already facing down mass opposition rallies and protests, can ill afford another series of strikes ahead of elections.