Garment workers making clothes in Bangladesh for UK high-street brands say they are facing starvation and are having to steal and scavenge food from fields and bins to feed their children, as protests continue over a new minimum wage for the garment workforce of 4 million people.
Over the past week, tens of thousands of workers have taken to the streets in increasingly violent protests that, according to unions and news reports, have left one young garment worker, Rasel Hawlader, dead.
Despite being a major supplier of clothing to fast fashion brands, Bangladesh has one of the lowest minimum wages for garment workers in the world, which has remained set at 8,000 taka (£60) since 2018.
The Bangladeshi Ministry for Labour and Employment is proposing a new minimum wage of 12,500 taka (£92) a month, which is significantly lower than the 23,000 taka (£170) a month that workers’ unions say is the minimum needed to cover basic living costs amid spiralling inflation and a cost of living crisis. Further protests are expected during a two-week review period before the new minimum wage is confirmed by the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, who has the power to make the final decision.
Garment workers taking part in protests in Dhaka told the Guardian that anything less than 23,000 taka a month would condemn their families to starvation.
“The leggings I make retail for more than my entire month’s salary,” said one garment worker with young children who did not want to be named. “To us, it is clear that there are huge profits being made on our backs. Even the 23,000 taka we are asking for wouldn’t be enough, but it would offer some kind of relief. Why should my children go hungry?”
Another garment worker, Rojina Akter, said her wages did not cover even basic food costs, and that she felt desperate as costs keep rising.
“I despise every moment at the factory because of the harsh conditions and harassment, but with rising inflation the wage I earn is insufficient. Many times, I’ve had to sneak into fields on my way home from work to hunt for vegetables to feed my children. Starvation is next,” she said.
Monnujan Sufian, Bangladesh’s state minister for labour and employment, told local newspapers the government was engaged in negotiations over a new minimum wage, after factory owners rejected the union’s calls for the wage to be raised to 23,000 taka. He also said the government was considering calls from garment workers for ration cards to help cover living costs.
Many fashion brands, which source clothes from Bangladesh, say they support workers’ calls for a higher minimum wage. In a joint letter, brands including Next, Asos, New Look and Inditex, which owns Zara, said they recognised their role in “supporting wage developments”.
However, labour rights groups argue that, despite many brands coming out in support of workers’ demands for higher pay, it would require the brands to agree to pay more for their clothing orders for this to become a reality.
“Brands have the power and the leverage to play a crucial role in these negotiations but they are failing to do this,” said Thulsi Narayanasamy, director of international advocacy at the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC).
“It’s easy to say that you support a higher minimum wage and workers being paid a living wage, but without concrete action – and by this we mean actually paying the factories and the workers what it costs to make clothing that is being sold for enormous profits – then it is all meaningless,” Narayanasamy said.
“We’ve seen many brands vaguely come out in support of workers, but aside from one exception, not one of these companies have said they support the union’s call for a living wage of just £168 a month or adjust their own prices to enable it.”