Disastrous Outcome on Wages Made Worse by the Price Workers Are Paying for Speaking Out

  • Brands are facing final calls to use their leverage to influence the wage outcome: brands should reject the wage proposal and publicly commit to increase prices to support a wage of US$215 per month during the official 14-day period for submission of objections, which ends November 26.
  • Garment workers are encountering systematic punishment and retaliation, including violence, arrests, terminations, and killings, with tacit approval of major brands despite stated commitments to ensure freedom of association and assembly rights are respected in their supply chains.
  • Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) calls for punitive actions against workers as brands face calls to use their substantial leverage to enact their own human and labor rights commitments by ensuring an end to mass arrest threats against workers, the withdrawal of all unsubstantiated charges against workers and unionists, and payment of full wages to workers during shutdown periods initiated by factories.

Brands Failed to Support a Wage of US$215, the Proposed US$113 per Month Knowingly Condemns Workers to Poverty

The Bangladesh Government is proposing a minimum wage of US$113 (12,500 Bangladesh taka, “BDT”), well below the US$215 (BDT 23,000–25,000) per month that research shows is the minimum required to address the steep increases in costs of living for workers and families and ensure workers earn beyond the upper poverty line.

The proposed amount, published on November 12, opened a 14-day period for the submission of objections to the National Minimum Wage Board. This marks a clear deadline of November 26 for international brands to influence the final wage outcome and publicly commit to increasing prices paid to suppliers to enable this increase. These actions would match brands’ popularly stated commitments to respecting human rights and paying fair wages in their supply chains.

The Bangladesh Government has resisted mandating a livable wage, in part, because brands have failed to support garment workers’ call for a wage increase to US$215, despite multiple research studies indicating that anything less than this would keep workers in their current situation of malnutrition and unable to cover basic food, medical, and education costs for their children. More importantly, brands did not commit to increase prices paid to suppliers to cover the wage hike, despite demands for them to do so from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and research studies indicating that brands’ aggressive pricing practices are particularly harmful in Bangladesh, where many suppliers are not paid enough to cover the cost of production.

Industry groups such as the Ethical Trading Initiative, Fair Labor Association, and Fair Wear have released statements urging their member brands to respect purchasing prices and state that they already have commitments to ‘responsible purchasing’. However, the voluntary nature of these membership organizations means that there is no mechanism to ensure that brands pay sufficient prices without reducing orders, ultimately rendering these statements hollow.

BDT 12,500 Is an Increase of 14%, Presenting This as a 56% Increase Is Misleading

The BGMEA has framed the proposal as a 56 percent increase, issuing a statement on November 14 describing the hike as, “way above inflation”.

Yet once adjusted for inflation since the last minimum wage increase, the real increase represented by BDT 12,500 is just 14 percent. This reflects the 37 percent inflation in Bangladesh using end of period Consumer Price Inflation (CPI) figures from the International Monetary Fund.

While the proposed wage hike represents a small increase in real terms, history illustrates how quickly these gains will be reversed. The last minimum wage increase for garment workers in 2018 represented a similar hike of 13 percent in the real wage since the previous increase in 2013. By the end of 2020, workers’ real wages had declined to their 2013 wage level. By 2023, workers were making 11 percent less than they did a decade earlier. Inflation had completely, and predictably, eroded the minimum wage hike benefits.

If inflation in Bangladesh continues at current rates, the value of the pending wage increase will have been entirely eroded by 2026, at which point workers will be making, in real terms, less than they do currently—an amount that is leaving the majority of workers hungry and unable to afford basic healthcare or education for their children.

Justifications by the Industry Assume Overtime, Not Standard Work Week

The BGMEA’s November 14 statement attempts to assuage concerns about the wage being too low by calculating the “take home pay” of a minimum wage garment worker. This calculation includes daily overtime of two to four hours despite workers reporting minimal overtime availability at present. It concludes that, “17,744–21,094 taka take home for a worker of 23–24 years should be enough considering their household profile”, admitting that a wage of 12,500 taka is insufficient for workers’ survival.

In short, the BGMEA issued this statement defending the sufficiency of a BDT 12,500 wage with a calculation of wages that assumes working hours beyond the standard work week of 48 hours, per the Labor Act. The Labor Act makes clear that overtime work is voluntary, therefore, a calculation of minimum wages must be based on the standard work week, not the assumption that workers will volunteer for overtime or that overtime hours will be available.

“If they take to the streets to protest at someone’s instigation, they will lose their job, lose their work and will have to return to their village,Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh Prime Minister.

Despair in response to the proposed wage increase has fueled worker protests, the only avenue available to raise concerns that the government’s wage proposal condemns workers to poverty. Yet a climate of fear is being stoked by the BGMEA and Bangladesh government by systematically punishing and threatening workers with violence, imprisonment, and termination with minimal accountability.

A Misapplication of Labor Law: ‘No Work No Pay’ Provision Cannot Be Applied Preemptively

In response to widespread protests against the wage proposal, the BGMEA has repeatedly called for factories to close under section 13/1 of the Labor Act, also referred to as ‘no work no pay’, as workers would not be paid during the period of closure. The official number of closed factories during November is 130, however, local estimates suggest that many more than this were shuttered for one to two weeks in November. This raises significant concern among workers that they will not receive wages for these periods of shutdown, which would lead to financially devastating impacts for workers already struggling to stay afloat.

While some workers are walking out to protest the sub-poverty wage proposal, BGMEA President Faruque Hassan has called for factories to preemptively lockout employees: “Until vandalism stops and unless law enforcement agencies ensure the safety, factory owners can keep their units shut under the Labor Law provision 13 (1) to protect the industry and property.”

Section 13/1 of the Labor Act allows factories to temporarily close and withhold payment from workers in case of an ‘illegal strike’. Yet what the BGMEA is promoting, and what many factories have already done, is preemptively close factories and refuse to pay wages when all workers have not gone on strike. In other words, these closures represent illegal lockouts by employers, not ‘illegal strikes’ by workers, rendering any denial of wages for this period illegal. Workers are now being forced to wait until their pay checks in the first week of December to find out if their pay has been docked.

Recruitment Freeze in Sector Threatens Workers’ Fundamental Rights of Freedom of Association and Assembly

The BGMEA has called for a recruitment freeze across garment factories, stating that “It is mandatory for every garment factory to display a ‘No Recruitment’ banner at its entrance.” This conveys the threat that in the event that workers are fired from their jobs they cannot be re-hired with another factory during this period, increasing the fear among workers of engaging in any union or protest activity for fear of retaliatory termination and subsequent blacklisting from further employment in the industry.

Punitive Use of Mass Criminal Cases against Workers

The BGMEA has been directing member factories to file mass criminal cases against both named and unnamed workers and to submit evidence of worker demonstrations directly to the BGMEA. At least 43 First Information Reports (FIRs) have been filed in police stations, which have left more than 20,000 workers at risk of arrest. These FIRs list thousands of ‘unnamed’ workers who were allegedly breaking laws, further fueling the pervasive fear among workers of retaliatory arrests in the coming weeks, where the standard of accountability and evidence against workers will be low, leading to fears of false arrests.

Many FIRs reviewed by the WRC have been filed by factory management of suppliers to major international brands, including H&M, Gap, Bestseller, VF Corp (North Face, Vans), PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger), Kontoor Brands (Wrangler, Lee), and Matalan.

At least 115 garment workers have already been arrested and imprisoned, where they face challenging conditions in overcrowded jails where opposition party supporters have also faced mass arrest ahead of the January 2024 election. This includes at least three union leaders and organizers that are currently in jail with all bail requests having repeatedly been denied. Concerns have been raised that the arrests are politically motivated with all three union-linked arrests taking place alongside claims that the accused were not involved or even in the physical vicinity of the alleged incidents.

Mohammad Jewel Miya, arrested on October 29 under a FIR that also lists 2,000–3,000 unnamed workers, has been in jail and denied bail four times to date. Miya is an organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF). Mizanur Rahman, arrested on November 11 under an FIR that also lists 700–800 unnamed persons, is an organizer with Akota Garments Workers Federation (AGWF). He has since been charged with attempted murder and has stated that he was not involved in the protests at all or even close to the factory in question.

Babul Hossain, arrested on November 14, is the general secretary at Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Solidarity (BGWS) and has been active in the movement to increase wages. Hossain has been accused of setting fire to a car on October 30 and throwing a brick at the driver, identified as one of the unnamed 1,100–1,200 individuals who were involved in the incident. Hossain, his family, and other union members have testified that he was not in Gazipur on the day of the alleged incident and state that he has been falsely accused due to his political affiliations.

Violence and Killing of Workers

Workers have faced significant violence, with at least four workers now dead, and dozens more seriously injured, with heavy police and military presence throughout the past weeks in industrial areas. While brands have stated that their codes of conduct expressly support workers’ freedom of association and assembly, all workers that have been killed and injured are working in factories that supply major fashion brands. Calls are being made for brands to contribute to compensation funds for the families of those killed.

Rasel Howlader, killed on October 30, worked at the Design Express factory in Gazipur and was reportedly shot at close range by police officers who directed tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition at protesting workers. Howlader, 26, found the factory closed when he arrived. On the way back to his dormitory, he was killed as he passed through the protesting workers. According to the friend with him at the time he was shot, Howlader was running away from the police and the protest, was actively pursued, then gunned down as he begged for his life. It does not appear he was participating in the demonstrations. Howlader was preparing to get married and was the sole income earner for his parents, including his bedridden mother, and two younger siblings.

Worker interviews and global trade data indicate that the Design Express factory produced for Reitmans, a women’s clothing giant listed on the Canadian Stock Exchange. Available information does not indicate that the factory bears any direct responsibility for Rasel Howlader’s death.

Another garment worker, Imran Hossain, 32, reportedly died after sustaining critical injuries in a fire inside the ABM Fashions factory on the evening of October 30. It is unclear who set the fire, which occurred in the midst of widespread unrest in the area around the factory, beginning on October 23, and led to closures of many factories in Gazipur. Buyers from ABM Fashions include H&M, Bestseller, and Aldi South, according to these brands’ public suppliers lists.

Anjuara Khatun, a 23-year-old machine operator at Islam Garments in Gazipur, died on November 8 after being shot multiple times during protests to increase the minimum wage. Jalal Uddin, 40, a sewing supervisor also at Islam Garments was injured in the same protest in the Konabari area, succumbing to his severe injuries on November 12. Islam Garments supplies C&A, and s.Oliver.

  • Reject the wage offer made by the minimum wage board before the November 26 deadline and commit to increasing prices and maintaining production levels;
  • Ensure that no further mass FIRs against unnamed workers are filed and that their suppliers are not involved in calling for the arrest of any of their workers without presenting credible and specific evidence of their individual involvement in violence;
  • Ensure that all unsubstantiated charges against workers are dropped and that they face no retaliation, now or in future, for exercising their rights to freedom of association and assembly; and
  • Ensure workers are paid in full for illegal lockout periods initiated by employers and that factories are not continuing to threaten the workforce with additional closures.