DHAKA Bangladeshi garment factory owners said on Thursday they had agreed to a proposed 77 percent rise in the minimum wage, but police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up new protests by stone-throwing workers calling for a bigger increase.
Bangladesh's official wage board had proposed the rise to $68 a month as the minimum wage after a string of fatal factory accidents this year thrust poor pay and conditions into the international spotlight.
The garment owners agreed to the proposal at a meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday night.
"We have agreed to the new wages after the prime minister assured us she would look into our problems," said Mohammad Atiqul Islam, President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers' and Exporters' Association.
He said the new wage, to be officially approved by the wage board, would be effective from next month.
"In the greater interest of our garment sector, we agreed to it. But many small factories cannot afford the rise."
Workers demanding a $100 a month took to the streets, blocking major roads and attacking factories in the Ashulia industrial belt, on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka.
Police used water cannon, fired rubber bullets and lobbed tear gas to disperse the stone-throwing demonstrators, witnesses said. More than 50 people, including police, were wounded.
"We will continue protesting until we realise our demand," a protester said.
Violent protests over the pay rise have forced the closure of more than 100 factories this week. Some 200 were shut on Thursday.
The workers' protests coincide with a violent anti-government protests and strikes led by the main opposition party demanding next year's elections take place under a non-partisan government.
The impasse between the ruling party and opposition over election rules is a fresh threat to Bangladesh's $22 billion garment export industry, the economic lifeblood of the impoverished country of 160 million, employing around 4 million people, mostly women.
The garment industry, which supplies many Western brands such as Wal-Mart, JC Penney and H&M, has already been under the spotlight after the accidents, including the collapse of a building housing factories in April that killed more than 1,130 people.
Rock-bottom wages and trade deals with Western countries have helped make Bangladesh the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China, with 60 percent of its clothes going to Europe and 23 percent to the United States.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Nick Macfie)