Bangladesh Garment Workers Protest Despite Warnings

Thousands of workers from the garment industry demonstrated near the Bangladeshi capital over a new minimum wage they call too low.

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) -- Thousands of workers from the garment industry demonstrated Monday near the Bangladeshi capital over a new minimum wage they call too low, defying government warnings against moves that might jeopardize the country's top export earner.

At least 25 protesters were injured when security officials charged with batons to remove them from a major highway at Ashulia and Savar, a major industrial hub just outside Dhaka that supplies international chains including Wal-Mart, Gap and Marks & Spencer.

About a dozen factories closed Monday to avoid being damaged, as the rampaging workers attacked some of the them, police official Mahbubur Rahman said. He added that the protesters fled when additional security arrived.

Separately, several hundreds of workers blocked a road in Narayanganj, another industrial zone near Dhaka, the Daily Star newspaper reported Monday. There was no major violence reported.

Monday's demonstrations were part of an angry response to the government's new minimum wages for the nation's 2 million garment workers -- most of them women -- after months of often-violent protests over poor pay and working conditions. The new structure raises the minimum pay by about 80 percent, but workers and labor leaders say that isn't enough and does not match the high cost of living.

The new protest Monday came despite agreement by union leaders late Sunday to the new minimum pay structure, following a meeting with the government and factory owners.

Bangladesh has about 4,000 factories that export in bulk to international companies including Wal-Mart, Tesco, H&M, Zara, Carrefour, Gap, Metro, JCPenney, Marks & Spencer, Kohl's, Levi Strauss and Tommy Hilfiger.

Garment workers in Bangladesh are among the lowest-paid in the world and have difficulty buying enough food and arranging shelter on their monthly earnings, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, a Vienna-based labor rights group.

In the first increase since 2006, the official minimum wage has been set at 3,000 takas ($45) a month, up from 1,662 takas ($25). Workers and labor rights groups have pressed for a monthly minimum wage of 5,000 takas ($73). The new pay structure starts in November and has seven grades -- the highest pay fixed at 9,300 takas ($140).

Factory owners say the skilled workers usually earn much more than the minimum wage, and they label the recent protests as a conspiracy by some vested quarters and outsiders to destroy the industry, which competes with major exporters like India and China in low-end products.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Saturday her administration would show zero tolerance for any further protests that might jeopardize the vital industry.

Garment exports earn Bangladesh more than $12 billion a year, nearly 80 percent of the country's export income.

In June, about 700 garment factories in a major industrial hub near Dhaka were shut for two days after days of violent protests by tens of thousands of workers.

The manufacturers say they're being squeezed by a slump in prices on the international market because of global economic crisis. They also say higher production costs due to an energy crisis and poor infrastructure are pushing them to the edge.

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