US State Department
File photo

The United States has condemned the recent violence against workers in Bangladesh who were protesting for a minimum wage increase and expressed concern over the criminalisation of legitimate worker and trade union activities. 

In a press statement on Wednesday, Mathew Millar, spokesperson for the US state department, also mourned the recent deaths of two workers and expressed condolence to their families and greater labour communities. 

“We were saddened by the reported killing by police last week of Rasel Howlader, a 26-year-old factory worker and union member from Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.  Additionally, we mourn the loss of Imran Hossain, a 32-year-old worker who died in a fire set by protestors inside a Dhaka factory.  We extend our condolences to their families and the greater labor communities,” read the statement. 

The US also voiced concern over the ongoing repression of workers and trade unionists in Bangladesh and urged the government to protect the workers' rights to peaceful protest as well as investigate allegations of false criminal charges against workers and labour leaders.  

The statement, however, commended the private sector members who have endorsed union proposals for a reasonable wage increase.

At the same time, it urged the tripartite process to revisit the minimum wage decision to ensure that it addresses the growing economic pressures faced by workers and their families.

Reiterating its call to protect the workers' basic rights, the US said, “Governments must ensure workers are able to exercise their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining without fear of violence, reprisal, or intimidation.  Through our work in Bangladesh and globally, we are firmly committed to advancing these fundamental human rights.” 

Bangladesh raised the minimum monthly pay for the country's four million garment workers by 56.25 per cent on Tuesday, but it was immediately rejected by unions seeking a near-tripling of the figure.

Around 3,500 garment factories in Bangladesh account for around 85 per cent of the country’s $55 billion in annual exports, supplying many of the world's top fashion names including Levi's, Zara and H&M.

According to an AFP report, the conditions are dire for many of the sector's four million workers, the vast majority of whom are women whose monthly pay starts at Tk 8,300 ($75).

Workers have gone on strike to demand a near-tripling of their wages, with violent scenes in recent days, while employers offered 25 per cent.

The minimum wage was fixed by a state-appointed board that includes representatives from the manufacturers, unions and wage experts.

"The new minimum monthly wage for garment factory workers has been fixed at Tk 12,500 ($113)," Raisha Afroz, the board secretary, told AFP.

The figure was immediately rejected by unions, which have been demanding a Tk 23,000 minimum.

Unions say their members have been hard hit by persistent inflation, which in October reached nearly 10 per cent, and a cost of living crisis partly triggered by the taka depreciating about 30 per cent against the US dollar since early last year.

"This is unacceptable. This is below our expectations," said Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.