The workers protested in Savar, a garment hub just outside Dhaka, on Sunday, clashing with police, who used water cannon and tear gas to disperse them.
Sana Shaminur Rahman, industrial police director, told AFP that, “The workers barricaded the highway. We had to drive them away to ease traffic conditions.”
The workers have been protesting for over a week. At least one worker has been killed and dozens have been hurt in the clashes so far.
Bangladesh heavily depends on revenue from the work of low-paid laborers making apparel in sweatshops, including for global brands, Presstv reported.
The garment industry makes up to a whopping 80 percent of the country’s exports. The industry, worth 30 billion dollars, has turned Bangladesh into the second-largest garment exporter behind China.
But the workers, who until recently received the equivalent of some 65 dollars a month only, have been demanding higher pay. Last month, the government increased the minimum wage by up to 51 percent, raising it to 95 dollars per month. Union leaders say, however, that middle-tier workers don’t benefit from the meager raise, which does not help them keep up with the costs of living.
“So far 52 factories, including some big ones, have shut down operations due to the protests,” Shaminur Rahman, the industrial police director, further said.
Aminul Islam, a union leader, blamed the violence on the factory owners. Still, he said, the workers “are more united than ever. It doesn’t seem like they will leave the streets, until their demands are met,” according to The Daily Mail.
The employers have remained defiant.
Siddikur Rahman, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), threatened to cut off the workers’ pay after clashes stretched to the second week.
“We may follow the ‘no work, no pay’ theory, according to the labor law,” Siddikur Rahman told reporters.
There are also concerns about workplace safety. In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Savar collapsed, killing 1,130 people.
The recent unrest is also seen as a test for the government of Sheikh Hasina, who won a fourth term as prime minister in elections last December that were marred by arrests, violence, and allegations of voter intimidation.