One of the world’s great struggles for social justice is taking place in Bangladesh, where more than 3.5 million mostly young women garment workers are demanding a modest minimum wage of 35 cents an hour, which would allow them to climb out of misery and at least into poverty.
The current minimum wage, which has not been raised since 2006 despite annual inflation rates of 6.5 to 10 percent, is just 11.5 cents an hour, which is the lowest industrial wage in the world. Bangladesh’s garment workers are among the hardest working women in the world, and the most exploited. Despite working up to 12 hours a day, often seven days a week, the garment workers and their families are crowded into primitive one-room hovels, forced to live from hand to mouth, barely subsisting on rice and lentils. Dozens of families share one primitive hand water pump where they queue up to bathe, scrub their clothes and wash their dishes.
When it rains, the thatched roofs often leak, leaving the workers and their families no choice but to sit up all night covering themselves with pieces of plastic. The garment workers’ children often go hungry and lack basic school supplies.
It does not have to be this way. The United States is the largest single market for Bangladeshi clothing exports, while the United Kingdom and the European Union together account for 57 percent of Bangladesh’s total garment exports. This gives the people of North America and Europe a strong voice to stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Bangladesh who sew the clothing we wear. The largest multinational retailers and apparel companies in the world-including, Wal-Mart, Tesco and H&M, are major producers in Bangladesh. There is not one single retailer or apparel company in the world that could not easily afford to pay the very modest 35-cents-an-hour minimum wage the Bangladeshi workers are demanding.
Last week, the minimum wage board announced an increase in the minimum wage to 3000 taka ($43.17) a month, or 21 cents an hours, to be implemented on Nov. 1, 2010. However, this falls well below workers’ compromise demand of 5000 taka, down from their original proposal of 6,200 taka ($89.21) a month. Still, this modest increase would be a small step forward. The AFL-CIO stands in complete solidarity with the Bangladeshi garment workers’ very modest minimum wage demand of 5000 taka a month, which amounts to 35 cents an hour, $16.60 a week and $71.94 a month.
The AFL-CIO will ask our government to work together with the government of Bangladesh to guarantee that Bangladesh’s workers have the right to freedom of association, to organize independent unions and to bargain collectively.
The AFL-CIO urges the government of Bangladesh to immediately intervene to protect union leaders who are being threatened or have been falsely imprisoned on trumped up charges.
For decades, multinational corporations have assured us that global trade would “lift all ships,” raising wages while also improving working conditions and respect for the right to organize. Bangladesh is at the bottom of the global economy. The heroic struggle of Bangladesh’s women garment workers in their demand for 35 cents an hour and respect for their labor rights may be a turning point in the race to the bottom in the global economy.
The AFL-CIO will encourage our 11.5 million members to support the Bangladeshi workers in their struggle for justice. We also will reach out to other international unions and federations across the world.