DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladeshi police used batons and teargas to disperse thousands of garment workers who went on a rampage in Dhaka on Friday, burning cars and pelting stones to protest against a wage hike they consider inadequate.
The protests came a day after the government nearly doubled the minimum wage for millions of workers in the key export garment industry to 3,000 taka ($43) from 1,662 taka, but it fell far short of labour union demands of 5,000 taka.
Rejecting the pay increase, angry workers burnt tyres, broke into shuttered buildings and set furniture ablaze in the heart of Dhaka on Friday, and vowed to continue protesting.
“The violence has eased but not over yet,” said a police officer.
Bangladesh-based factories make garments for international brands such JC Penney, Wal-Mart, H&M, Kohl‘s, Marks & Spencer, Zara and Carrefour.
These are Bangladesh’s biggest export, accounting for more than 80 percent of the impoverished country’s annual export earnings of $16 billion, but garment industry workers earn wages well below the poverty line.
“We work to survive but ... commodity prices are going up and we cannot even arrange basic needs with our meagre income,”said Putul Begum, a worker punching her fists in the air at the protest.
“The 3,000 taka will be barely enough to buy food for my six-member family. How can I pay for medicines, education of my children and other needs?”
The garment sector is Bangladesh’s second biggest employer after agriculture, with around 4,500 factories employing about 3.5 million workers, with many toiling in dangerous conditions.
A senior labour ministry official, who asked not to be identified, said the authorities would further negotiate with the mill owners so that the workers get benefits such as bonus, overtime payment, maternity and transport allowances.
Leaders of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said they had reluctantly agreed to pay the government-set wages -- though it would put much pressure on many employers.
Police and a pro-government labour union accused opposition groups of trying to stir up trouble in the volatile textile sector put pressure on the government.
“Not all the protesters were factory workers but many (outsiders) joined them on the streets to make it worse,” Dhaka’s metropolitan police commissioner A.K.M. Shahidul Haque told reporters.
The Jatiya Sramik League said anti-government forces were behind the latest wave of unrest in the textile sector.
Police officer Nurul Alam said authorities initially tried to disperse the protesters without using force. But fire fighters were called after the protesters began pelting bricks and stones at police, witnesses said.
“At places police and protesters fought running battles,” one Reuters cameraman said. Police declined to say if anyone was injured or arrested.
Dozens of workers were injured in clashes with police last month during protests over salaries and working conditions that disrupted production at several factories.
“We are rejecting what has been offered as increased wages because it is too inadequate to make ends meet,” said one angry worker. “We cannot submit to the (whims) of the government and factory owners.”
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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