December 24, 2018 / 3:28 PM / 6 months ago

Protests hit Bangladesh's clothing manufacturers as election nears

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh’s clothing manufacturers, which dominate the southern Asian nation’s economy, are worried sporadic violence that has affected some factories ahead of Sunday’s election will spread.

Workers have been demanding higher minimum pay than proposed in September by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is seeking her third straight term in power. She has the support of many textile factory owners, and that can also make them a target for those opposed to the government.

Around the last election in 2014, which the main opposition party boycotted, months of violence hit operations at many factories, leading to millions of dollars in lost sales. Many foreign buyers curbed orders at the time.

In recent days, workers have gone on strike and taken to the streets in places including Mymensingh, about three hours north of Dhaka, and towns around the capital where textile factories are concentrated, three garment exporters told Reuters.

The garments industry generates around $30 billion of exports a year, about 80 percent of Bangladesh’s merchandise export earnings, making it the second largest in the world behind China.

The government said in September the minimum wage for garments workers would rise by up to 51 percent from December, payable in January, to 8,000 taka (75.6 pounds) a month, the first increase since late 2013.

Workers, though, say that’s not enough.

“We want at least 12,000,” Meem, who goes by just one name, said outside the Dhaka factory where she works, as co-workers gathered around her by the dozens. “There’s ever increasing work pressure on us but our wages do not rise as fast.”

Police say they are ready for trouble.

“We have a definite intelligence report that a section of people want to create unrest in the sector, but that won’t be possible as we are alert,” police spokesman Mohammad Sohel Rana said, without elaborating.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has asked workers to remain calm and promised to make representations about wages to the government after the election, instead of each company negotiating with employees.

Its president, Siddiqur Rahman, said he backed Hasina’s Awami League.

“I am really worried because everything was OK until recently but due to political reasons they are doing this,” Shahidul Haque Mukul, another Awami League supporter, whose factory was vandalised on Monday morning, told Reuters by phone.

BUSY TIME

December is typically the garment industry’s busiest time.

“I have buyers from countries like Japan, France and Portugal. They are placing smaller orders than normal for this time of year,” Mukul said, blaming opposition groups for the trouble.

Mahmud Hasan Khan, a textile factory owner and a leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), declined to comment on the protests or violence.

The BNP’s leader and former Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, is in jail on what the party calls trumped-up corruption charges.

Several workers outside the six-storey building of Mukul’s Adams Apparel in Dhaka told Reuters they would continue to press for higher wages but were not involved in stone pelting that smashed windows on Monday.

They said the protests had so far been spontaneous, though there was a risk of people taking advantage of them.

“There was a fear that something like this would happen around the election,” said Mohammed Murad, a machine operator at Adams Apparel. “Hopefully things would be under control.”

Mohammad Mujibul Haque, the junior minister for labour and employment, said there was no reason for unrest after the wage hike announcement.

“There’s some incitement from a quarter to destabilise the environment ahead of the election,” he said, without elaborating.

Additional reporting by Ruma Paul; Edited by Martin Howell and Mark Potter

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