Last Saturday, Garment Sramik Samannay Parishad, a federation of trade unions in garment sectors, organized a rally of over 50,000 workers to meet their different demands including raising minimum monthly salary to about $100. Bangladesh’s apparel industry, which supplies many Western brands such as Walmart, Gap and Macy’s, has been under a spotlight after several deadly work-related tragedies, including the collapse of a mega-factory on April 24th that killed more than 1,130 people.
The current minimum wage in Bangladesh is $38 a month, but factory owners and government have been in talks to increase it. When the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) announced they would only agree to a $7.75 raise on Monday, demonstrations increased to an estimated 200,000 workers and spread to the major industrial hubs of the city. About 400 factories were shut down, some of them vandalized, vehicles were damaged and major roads barricaded. At least 60 people were injured in clashes with the police, who have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowds.
As the mass demonstrations continue, the government has yet to publicly announce a decision on wages, but it has a vested interest in keeping them low since many ministers in Bangladesh’s parliament own factories. Besides boycotting stores and joining anti-sweatshop organizations, is there anything people in the West can do to support workers in Bangladesh and other countries used for cheap labor? One solution which has already been implemented in Switzerland and Egypt is a “maximum wage”. For example, Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transport Workers Union proposed a law that would limit an employer’s income to no more than 100 times the salary of their lowest-paid employee. Rather than putting a cap on earnings, it would maintain a fixed ratio between the executives at the top and employees at the bottom. Given that six Walmart heirs own more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans ($102.7 billion), it seems a maximum wage for the U.S. is long overdue though admittedly unlikely given the current corrupt political system.