At least 50 people were hurt as police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up massive garment worker protests near Dhaka, Bangladesh on Sunday, the Associated Press reported. Strikes and street protests shut down over 100 factories on Monday as tens of thousands of workers organized to demand an increase to their wages, which are currently as low as $38 per month.
The protests have continued for three days, and one report put the total number of participants at 50,000. Workers want the minimum wage in Bangladesh to be increased to $100 per month. Reuters reported clashes between police and workers as well as between workers and a local militia group.
The key textile supplier has seen significant labor unrest this spring and summer, in the wake of a factory collapse that killed 1,132 workers at Rana Plaza in April. A new law was supposed to make it easier for garment workers to form unions, and 30 different unions have registered since the law was enacted. Management has responded with violence, bribes, and threats of retaliation, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.
That preventable tragedy has brought scrutiny to building inspection practices and the treatment of workers at the factories that feed some of the largest western retail corporations. There are an estimated 2,000 factories in Dhaka like the one at Rana Plaza, which had been unlawfully expanded using shoddy materials and had major structural cracks visible to workers prior to its collapse, but the city has just 40 building inspectors.
Facilities that do get visited by inspectors tend to get cosmetic “check the box” inspections that do not hold factory owners accountable to building codes, a New York Times investigation found. One study found that three in five industrial structures in Bangladesh are vulnerable to collapse. Several major retailers that source their garments to Bangladesh have entered into a new pact on fire and safety rules, though Walmart and GAP have withheld their support for the agreement.
Bangladesh’s lax safety rules and low wages make it “the cheapest place to make large quantities of clothing,” Reuters notes. The current $38 minimum monthly wage is 14 percent of a living wage for the country. Bringing factories up to code nationwide would cost $3 billion, roughly equivalent to a price hike of 10 cents per garment if passed on to consumers in its entirety.