Before the implementation of the new wage structure for the garment sector workers in December 2018, a senior operator would receive a total wage of Tk 5,204. But, now his wage has actually been scaled down to Tk 5,160, which is Tk 44 less than before.
This disparity occurred as the owners overlooked the fact that many of the workers’ basic wages annually increased by five per cent over the last five years, while negotiating with the wage board.
The basic pay for the senior operator was Tk 4,075.
The minimum monthly wage for the seventh (lowest) grade increased by 51 per cent to Tk 8,000 from Tk 5,300 fixed in the 2013 wage structure. The pay of the majority of workers, who are working in the third, fourth and fifth grades, has increased by 41, 44 and 46.55 per cent respectively. The rate of increase for these positions in the previous wage structure of 2013 were between 61 to 70 per cent.
The total wage for the senior workers has not increased even by half that of the lower grade workers.
The labour and employment ministry issued a gazette notification on 25 November, fixing the minimum wage. This was implemented from December and the workers started to receive this wage from January.
Despite this disparity in paying the RMG (readymade garments) workers' wages, the RMG owners have managed to use the pay hike to elicit benefits and advantages from the government. The National Board of Revenue (NBR) has reduced the tax at the source on the exports of apparels from 60 per cent to 25 per cent. This tax was 70 per cent in last fiscal.
The irate workers from several factories of Narayanganj and Gazipur took to the streets demanding higher wages in the first week of December.
Though the agitation was primarily contained by certain BGMEA leaders and trade unions, on Sunday the agitation of factory workers from Uttara in Dhaka spread over the following days.
A committee was formed comprising owners, workers and government representatives on Tuesday. Despite this, workers from 70 factories including factories in Genda, Ulail, Hemayetpur of Savar and from Mirpur, Dhaka joined demonstrations so far.
The garments manufacturers’ apex body BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) vice president Mohammad Nasir, however, denied that the owners resorted to any manipulation regarding workers' wages.
The new wage structure has been formed following the rules of the two previous structures. No one's pay has been decreased, Nasir told Prothom Alo, adding, it was unfortunate the workers were not patient.
On Tuesday, Sumon Mia, 22, a worker of Anlima Textile from Ulail in Savar, was killed in clashes between police and workers at Hemayetpur, Savar.
Four BGB platoons have been deployed at Ashulia and Savar to control the situation, police said.
Several trade union leaders said as the basic pay of the senior grades was not increased, the overtime dues and festival bonuses were not going to increase either.
"A helper will be paid only Tk 400 less from me. What's the difference?" said Babu Mia, who has been working in a factory of the Standard Group for a few years.
"My landlord will increase my house rent as he has heard about the pay hike. The price of everything else will now rise too. So if all these factors are taken into consideration, my income has not actually increased," another worker Pervin Akhter said.
The workers are not clear about the pay increase according to the latest wage structure and this misunderstanding has led the agitation, industry police-1 super Shana Shaminur Rahman said.
The fact that the basic pay has annually increased by five per cent over the last five years (after the 2013 wage structure was implemented), has been omitted during the negotiations with the minimum wage board.
The wage of the senior grades have increased slightly, the gap between wages for upper and lower grades have decreased, Khandokar Golam Moazzem, director of research at CPD (Centre for Policy Dialogue) said, adding the the amount increased over the last five years should be added to the pay in the new structure.
Clashes with police, factories shut in Savar
Several of the factories at Ulail, Savar were closed Wednesday.
As the workers took position of the Dhaka-Aricha highway in the morning they were chased by people wielding sticks with police coming up from behind. The workers were dispersed in while many of the Al Muslim factory workers took shelter in their factory.
Another group of Standard Group workers held a demonstration in front of their factory. The police failed to mitigate the situation.
Several thousand workers took position on the road and hurled stones at the police.
Police charged the crowd with batons and fired tear gas to disperse them, leaving at least 30 people injured, according to the witnesses.
As soon as the workers left the road, police took control of the situation and normalcy was restored.
The Standard Group factories were closed indefinitely at Hemayetpur, Ulail.
The agitation spread at Kathhgora, Jirabo, Jamgora and Baipail in Ashulia. Road blockades and clashes with police continued till 4:00pm, leaving 15 injured.
Cases filed against the workers
The industry police have filed cases against over 1,500 workers with the Savar police station alleging attacks on police. The case document has no reference to the death of a worker being shot dead and no cases have been filed either over the killing.
The statement reads, about 1,500 workers held demonstrations before a Standard Group factory at Genda, Savar around 1:15pm Tuesday over the new wage structure. A group of police went to the spot and the workers hurled stones at them.
They also tried to take their weapons by force, compelling the law enforcers to open fire and use tear gas against the demonstrators, it added. Several of the police members were injured in the attacks, claimed the statement.
The case was filed by inspector of industry police-1, Osman Gani.
This case is under investigation and if any case over the death of the worker is filed, they would take due action, said Abdul Awal , the officer-in-charge at Savar model police station.
The body of the worker, Sumon Mia, has been collected by his family members from Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital (SHSMCH) morgue after postmortem. Sources at the morgue said, Sumon was shot dead but only the police would be able to confirm who fired the bullet. There were marks of injury on his chest either from a sharp weapon or bullets, said Selim Reza, head of the forensic medicine department at SHSMCH.
*This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin