DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Riot police fired tear gas to battle thousands of stone-throwing garment workers who rampaged through two industrial towns in Bangladesh during a protest over wages Tuesday that closed at least 200 factories and left dozens of people injured, police said.
The protesters built roadblocks with abandoned vehicles and wooden logs in violence that highlighted the poor working conditions in an industry that earns Bangladesh $20 billion in exports yearly but whose workers are the lowest paid in the world.
Thousands of angry workers hurled stones at security forces and attacked factories in the towns of Savar and Ashulia outside the capital, Dhaka, Industrial Police Director Mustafizur Rahman said. At least 200 factories closed in the second day of the protest, and 80 people were injured over two days.
Authorities deployed hundreds of paramilitary border guards to help police fighting the protesters. "We can't accept the wages that are being offered to us. This is not enough for us," said Kahirul Mamun Mintu, a protest leader at Savar. "Our movement will continue until our demands are met."
A government-appointed panel voted last week to raise the minimum wage for garment workers to 5,300 takas ($66.25) a month — a raise by 77 percent but still the lowest minimum wage in the world. The workers are demanding 8,114 takas ($100) instead.
Factory owners have not endorsed the proposal, arguing the proposed wage for an unskilled newcomer would increase production costs and destroy the industry in a fiercely competitive global market. The raise would have to gain Ministry of Labor approval to become law.
Bangladesh is the second-largest garment manufacturing country after China and exports mainly to the United States and Europe. The sector employs about 4 million workers, mostly women. It has come under scrutiny for its often harsh and unsafe conditions after the collapse of a factory building killed more than 1,100 people in April and a fire last November that killed 112 workers.
The garment workers' protests have added to chaos from three weeks of sometimes-violent political protests in the South Asian nation. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and 17 allies have been enforcing a nationwide strike pushing a demand that a caretaker government with people from outside political parties oversee elections due by early January.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wants to form an all-party caretaker government to hold the elections and says she would go ahead with the plan even if the main opposition leader doesn't participate. An opposition politician said opposition leader Khaleda Zia has vowed to continue the protests.
"We will stop calling general strikes only after the government accepts our demand," an opposition politician Kader Siddiky quoted her as saying after a meeting with her at her residence. Siddiky did not elaborate.
General strikes are a common opposition tactic in Bangladesh to highlight political demands. They usually shut down schools, shops and transport in the cities. But authorities usually keep garment factories open to confirm shipment.