The police in Bangladesh have arrested three garment industry labor leaders and 18 other people on charges that they organized and participated in violent protests last month.
International advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Rights Forum have criticized the arrests, calling them a tactic for intimidating workers in a powerful industry that supplies Western retailers like Wal-Mart Stores and H&M. The protesters were angry over a recent increase in the minimum wage, calling it inadequate.
The arrests, made over the last several weeks, came after street protests in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, and other hubs of the fast-growing clothing industry. Garment-making, with about three million workers, employs more people than any other industrial segment in Bangladesh, a largely agrarian country of 160 million.
The labor tensions are playing out at a crucial juncture for Bangladesh’s largest export industry, which has been growing as a lower-cost alternative to China. With nearly 70 million people of working age, Bangladesh could probably absorb many more of China’s 20 million garment industry jobs. But there are evidently limits to the Bangladeshi work force’s willingness to undersell their Chinese counterparts.
Last month, a government-appointed wage board raised the minimum wage in Bangladesh’s garment industry to 3,000 taka a month, or $43. That was up from 1,662.50 taka and was the first increase since 2006.