On Monday, apparel factory workers in Bangladesh demonstrated their frustrations over small wages with protests that quickly escalated to violent riots. The protests, which began last week, have injuredmore than 50 people, including 6 policemen.
An estimated 100 factories have halted operations due to vandalism and blockades generated by the crowds. Cars parked along the Gazipur and Savar industrial zones of Dhaka endured assault as bricks and rubber bullets flew between policemen and protesters.
"We had to take harsh actions to restore order as the defiant workers would not stop the violence," a Gazipur police officer told Reuters of their methods of retaliation.
As things escalated, protesters began looting government guard stations for guns and ammunition, compelling police to resort to the use of rubber bullets, in placeof the tear gas they had originally used at the beginning of the riots.
The protests began as a means to force garment factories to raise their minimum monthly wages from $40 a month to $100 a month.
"We work to survive but we can't even cover our basic needs," said a protesting woman worker.
Factories were forced to raise their minimum wage pay by almost 50 percent in 2010, after facing similar street protests.
But even with that increase Bangladeshi factory workers still earn only half the amount of workers in other Third World countries, such as Cambodia.
The government is negotiating with unions and factories to boost salaries at the factories, but little progress has been made. Workers refused to accept factory owners' most recent offer of a 20 percent increase in pay. The workers claim the wages would still not be enough to live on.
Many apparel companies in the West, including Wal-Mart and H&M, rely on cheap labor in Third World countriesto keep their manufacturing costs low, which in turn allows them to sell garments at low prices.
"It's the ugliest race to the bottom because the financial crisis in America and Europe means that people are getting very scared of buying expensive things," Sanjiv Pandita, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Center, told the Wall Street Journal.
To keep customers coming back, retailers will continue to search for the lowest possible cost of sourcing for their clothing. This means that even if factories in Bangladesh do raise their minimum wage, jobs may become scarce as retailers move their business to factories with the cheapest and most competitive wages.
The riots cast a dark shadow on a $20-billion industry that has already faced great criticism in the light of a deadly Bangladesh factory fire that killed more than 1,130 people in April. The fire's vast damage has been attributed to safety shortcuts factories made in attempt to keep production costs low.
"I hope the workers will get back to work," Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan told reporters after a meeting with factory workers and owners Monday. And though a "minimum wage board" is scheduled to create a new salary structure by November, there is no sign of protesters returning to work anytime soon.