When Masuma Akhtar arrived at the garment factory where she works on the outskirts of Dhaka on Oct. 31, she was expecting a normal shift. Instead, she was met with brute violence. “The moment I walked through the factory gates, a group of armed men began beating me with wooden sticks,” says Akhtar. “I fell down on to the ground. Even then they wouldn’t stop beating me.”
Akhtar, 22, is a seamstress at Dekko Knitwears in Mirpur, where she spends long days churning out clothes for western fashion brands, including Marks & Spencer, C&A and PVH Corp, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s biggest producers of fast fashion, pumping out millions of tonnes of clothing every year to meet the demands of the world’s most popular clothing brands, which are drawn to this small South Asian country where orders – and the labour needed to fulfil them – come cheap.
Although most fast fashion brands that source from Bangladesh claim to support a living wage, they are only required to pay the workers who make their clothes the legal monthly minimum wage, which is one of the lowest in the world and has remained set at 8,000 taka ($72) since 2018.
Negotiations over a new minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh have sparked mass demonstrations on streets across the capital. The protests have escalated since the government announced a minimum wage increase for the workers, from 1 December, to 12,500 taka ($113), far below the 23,000 taka a month workers say they need to keep their families from starvation.
Factory owners and police have responded to workers’ protests with threats and violence. The beatings she received by armed men at Dekko Knitwears left Akhtar with a broken arm. “They hit my back, my thighs and my arms repeatedly,” she says. Now, without use of one of her arms, she is unable to work. “I don’t know how I will survive the rest of the month,” she adds.
Other workers at Dekko Knitwears say that the men beating them concentrated on their hands and arms. “They started hitting us mercilessly,” says Bushra Begum, 25, another worker. “My livelihood depends on my hands, and they targeted them viciously.”
Her colleague Rita Anwar, 26, tried to run away but was chased down the road by three men. “I am covered in blood clots,” she says, pulling up her sleeve to reveal her injuries. “My back is black with bruises. The pain is so much that I can barely walk.”
Before they left, the men issued a warning: the workers were not to take part in any more protests – or they would face consequences.
As protests in Dhaka turned increasingly violent, two garment workers have been killed, allegedly after being shot by police in the first wave of protests. And last Wednesday, another woman died after being shot in the head.
Factory owners also threatened to shut down production and withhold wages by applying a “no work, no pay” rule. Over the weekend, more than 150 factories closed “indefinitely”, as police issued blanket charges for 18,000 workers in connection with the demonstrations.
Workers were warned of dismissal if they continued to protest and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a trade body, called for all factory recruitment to be paused, making it difficult for protesters to find work elsewhere.
But despite the violent crackdown on workers, those who have spoken to the Guardian are determined to see the fight through to the end.
“They are trying to silence us but we won’t back down,” says Naima Islam, a machine operator at Columbia Garments. “They can threaten and beat us but what they don’t understand is, we have nothing to lose. If we accept their ridiculous wage proposal, we will starve to death anyway.”
Islam, 28, is one of thousands of protesters who have had police reports filed against them, which trade unionists fear may soon lead to mass arrests. Many believe it is an attempt to forcefully suppress the wage increase movement.
But that hasn’t deterred Islam and her co-workers. “We are not asking for much. This entire industry is built off our backs – the least we deserve is the bare minimum to survive,” she says.
Nazma Akter, president of local trade union Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, condemns the violence against protesting workers. “The Bangladesh government must ensure workers are able to exercise their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining without fear of violence, reprisal, or intimidation,” she says.
In a statement, Marks & Spencer said: “These are very serious allegations and we are urgently investigating them. We would never tolerate violence or intimidation of workers and set out very clearly in our global sourcing principles that workers must be guaranteed freedom of association and a safe workplace, as well as fair and transparent wages. As a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, we have supported the tripartite minimum wage negotiations between the unions, Government Wages Board and the Employers’ Association – and we continue to support cross-sector calls for an increase that provides a decent standard of living for workers.”
A spokesperson for C&A said: “We are aware of the incident that took place in Bangladesh, and we are in close contact with the supplier to investigate. We condemn all types of violence, and we have a longstanding commitment to ensure the safety and health of all workers in our supply chain.”
PVH did not respond to a request for comment.
Dekko Knitwears and Columbia Garments were approached for comment but did not respond.
Fashion brands sourcing from Bangladesh have said they support workers’ calls for a higher minimum wage. In a joint letter in September, brands including Asos, Primark and H&M, wrote that they recognised their role in “supporting wage developments”. But rights groups argue that this means little if brands don’t agree to pay their suppliers more.
Yesterday, Human Rights Watch and Clean Clothes Campaign called on brands to take responsibility for their workers’ wages and pay their suppliers more. Aruna Kashyap, associate director on corporate accountability at Human Rights Watch says: “Wage increases have consequences for suppliers’ costs and eat into their profit margins.”
“Brands themselves are driving low wages with their unfair pricing and purchasing practices,” she adds. “To preserve their own profits, brands are putting themselves first.”
Names have been changed to protect identities.
By Redwan Ahmedin Dhaka and Thaslima Begum