Protests ebb as Bangladesh garment factories agree wage rise

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladeshi garment factory owners promised on Sunday to raise wages for more than three million workers as soon as a government panel sets a figure, ending a week-long violent protest.

The manufacturers said they would raise wages by as much as the panel decides, despite earlier insisting they cannot afford more than a 20 percent increase on the existing minimum wage of US$38 (S$48) a month.

They made the announcement after holding talks late Saturday with the leaders of more than 40 unions representing workers in 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, the world's second largest apparel maker after China.

The government has already said wages would be raised by November, a month earlier than the previous deadline, but the exact figures are still unclear.

Unions have demanded a minimum wage of US$100.

"We told the unions that we'll hike wages for all workers as soon as the new minimum wages are announced by the government panel," said Atiqul Islam, head of the influential Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

"We are also ready to hike wages as much as the panel determines. We will accept even if it is more than 20 percent. But obviously our hope is that the enhanced wages will be win-win for the industry and the workers," he told AFP.

The announcement appeared to have quelled one of the biggest wage protests in the industry in years. Industrial police chief Mustafizur Rahman told AFP all factories were open on Sunday and there was no report of violence.

The president of the Jago Bangladesh Garment Sramik Federation which represents workers, Baharine Sultan, told AFP the employees had returned to work.

"We hope there won't be any unrest until the panel announces a pay hike.

And we also hope manufacturers will keep their word." Violent protests demanding a minimum US$100 monthly wage erupted in the country's key industry on September 21 after the owners announced their maximum 20 percent offer.

Tens of thousands of workers hit the streets in protest, blocking roads, setting factories alight and clashing with police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.

The riots, in which hundreds of people were injured, ebbed on Thursday but continued sporadically in major industrial areas till Saturday.

Protests over poor wages, benefits and working conditions are frequent in Bangladesh but have gained in intensity since April when a factory complex collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people in one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

Manufacturers and police said production in "at least 500 garment factories" - which make clothing for some of the world's top retailers such as Tesco and H&M - had been hit by the protests, costing owners some US$40 million.

Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir had warned of a crackdown on the demonstrations, amid concerns about the impact of the protests on the sector.

Manufacturers have long resisted big wage rises, saying these would erode Bangladesh's advantage as a cheap source of labour, with wages below other major garment-making nations such as India, China and Vietnam.

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