The minimum wage issue in Bangladesh apparel sector has gone international. The Secretary of the US Department of State Antony J Blinken in an obvious reference to Bangladesh warned those who threaten, intimidate, or attack union leaders, labour rights defenders and labour organisations will be held accountable.
Secretary of the US Department in his statement named Bangladeshi garment activist Kalpona Atker and pledged to use the US voice to make sure labour rights defenders are protected. The new warning issued by the United States against those who undermine labour rights, stating that it carries significant implications for Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen has said the United States can impose sanctions but it won’t be an issue for Bangladesh. In response to the US demand to respect Workers rights, the minister said, “We cannot become America in a day. They [the United States] think that Bangladesh will become America in just one day. It is quite surprising when they talk so big.”
Comparing the economic development of Bangladesh with America, the foreign minister said, “We know about the economic development of America. In that aspect, our workers are much better than America. Now their [United States] income per capita is $65,000. And ours is $2,800. Compared to them, our workers are doing very well. They should know about our process.”
The United States is not alone in this regards concerns in on workers rights have also been raised by the European Union, which along with the United Kingdom, which along with the US account for 70 percent of Bangladesh’s apparel exports.
Bangladesh’s readymade garment (RMG) industry faces immense pressure from its major buyers over a wide range of issues, including living wage and human rights, which might push the country’s top export sector into a future of uncertainty if not rectified.
Despite long-standing calls from the international community for the development of Bangladesh’s labour sector, the Bangladesh government failed to prioritise these concerns. They neglected to address their key concerns, particularly in areas such as establishing trade unions in Export Processing Zones (EPZs), and streamlining trade union formation processes.
Protests against low wages are coming from other corners as well. The Geneva-based global rights group IndustriAll, said the new minimum wage of Tk12,500 (US$112) announced on 9 November, is “woefully inadequate and keeps workers under the poverty line. In joint a letter to the prime minister, Fair Wear, amfori, Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), Fair Labor Association (FLA), and Mondiaal FNV, said the new minimum wage falls short of covering basic needs and a decent standard of living for the workers.
Bangladeshi industry and government allege that the labor issues in Bangladesh are highlighted out of proportion in contrast to its close Asian competitors like Vietnam, Cambodia, and India. However international labor NGO point out that all the three countries give 70 to 100 percent higher minimum wage in dollars than the Bangladeshi pays to its garment workers. Moreover they pointed out these countries have a system in place to review minimum wage years. For instance they said, Vietnam implements annual minimum wage adjustments averaging 5 percent, keeping pace with inflation, which typically hovers around 4 percent.
So far, cheap labour has been the sole source of strength of Bangladesh’s $47 billion export industry while ignoring labour rights, productivity and diversity issues. Despite the latest 56 percent hike in the minimum wage since the previous revision in 2018, coming into effect from 1 December, the labour rights groups find the new wage structure far lower than regional peers.