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Bangladesh garment worker shot dead in new wage protests

DHAKA (AFP) – A Bangladeshi woman was shot dead yesterday in the latest violent protests by garment workers after they rejected a government wage increase offer, with the victim’s husband blaming the police.

The South Asian country’s 3,500 garment factories account for around 85 per cent of its USD55 billion in annual exports, supplying many of the world’s top brands including Levi’s, Zara and H&M.

But conditions are dire for many of the sector’s four million workers, the vast majority of whom are women whose monthly pay starts at BDT8,300 (USD75).

A government-appointed panel raised wages on Tuesday by 56.25 per cent to BDT12,500, but striking workers demand a near-tripling of the wage to BDT23,000.

“Police opened fire. She was shot in the head… She died in a car on the way to a hospital,” said Mohammad Jamal, the husband of 23-year-old sewing machine operator Anjuara Khatun, a mother of two.

Jamal told AFP that police had fired on some 400 workers calling for wage increase in the industrial city of Gazipur, outside the capital Dhaka. “Six to seven people were shot at and injured,” he said.

A police inspector posted at Dhaka Medical College Hospital where the body was brought, confirmed the death but gave no further details. Police said fresh violence broke out yesterday in Gazipur, home to hundreds of factories, after 4,000 people staged protests rejecting the wage decision.

Garments workers walk off a factory at lunch break in Ashulia, Bangladesh. PHOTO: AFP
Bangladeshi policemen patrol along a street in Ashulia. PHOTO: AFP

“They (protesters) hurled bricks at factories, cars and police officers. We fired tear gas to disperse them,” local police chief KM Ashraf Uddin told AFP.

HOW CAN I SURVIVE?

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

“The wage was low before, and it is still low after the new minimum wage announcement,” said sewing machine operator Mujahid Ahmed, 23. “It is not enough to meet our basic demands.”

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

“I am widow, with two children. I get some 13,000 taka including overtime pay. How can I survive with this little income? My back is against the wall,” said worker Shahnaj Akter, in the garment-producing town of Ashulia.

Wage protests pose a major challenge to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 2009. A resurgent opposition has challenged her rule as she readies for elections due before January.

Security has been tight in key industrial towns outside Dhaka after unions threatened to hold new protests over what they described as the “farcical” wage hike.

Police said around 600 factories that make clothing for many major Western brands were shuttered last week and scores were ransacked in the biggest wage protest in a decade.

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