ILRF Report from 2010 Reveals Repression of Garment Labor Activists in Bangladesh

Garment worker woes, in Bangladesh, are not a recent development. In this report from the International Labor Rights Forum in 2010, the suffering and repression of factory labor in Bangladesh is made apparent. Their meager monthly wage of $43 not only far behind their demand for $72, but was also nutritionally less than prisoners in the country! Trade union leaders and human rights groups that challenged their unfair situation were subjugated. The recipe was ripe for disaster and it hit three years later.


November 1, 2010 – A report by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released today reveals a severe government crackdown on labor rights activists in Bangladesh in the last few months as the country’s garment workers demanded higher wages.  Bangladeshi garment workers are the worst paid workers in the world.    Worker protest against low wages and poor working conditions peaked in early August this year following the government’s announcement of a new $43 monthly minimum wage, well short of workers’ needs and expectations.  The new wage is scheduled to take effect today.

“We were forced to take to the streets as the owners exploited us right under the government’s nose,” said a garment worker quoted in The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi newspaper, after the government announcement of the new minimum wage.

According to the ILRF report, Enemies of the Nation or Human Rights Defenders? Fighting Poverty Wages in Bangladesh, the new $43 dollar minimum wage is still a “malnutrition wage.”  Even Bangladeshi prisoners are better off than garment workers in nutritional terms, the report claims.  It estimates a garment worker needs almost four times the new minimum wage just to feed her average-sized family.

The ILRF report criticizes the Bangladeshi government for scapegoating labor activists for inciting worker unrest and branding them “enemies of the nation” instead of dealing with workers’ genuine grievances. Focusing on the experiences of the leaders of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, one of the most prominent labor rights groups in Bangladesh, the report relates a harrowing story of persecution as Bangladeshi police and security forces, including the notorious Rapid Action Battalion, raided staff members’ homes and attempted by subterfuge to discover the hideouts of the organization’s leaders.  When captured, two of the labor leaders were tortured in custody to extract a confession that the organization had fomented worker riots.

Human rights groups, labor rights groups, and industry groups have denounced the Bangladeshi crackdown on labor rights activists.  Human Rights Watch condemned the “serious harassment of trade union leaders and other labor rights activists and workers in the ready-made garment (RMG) industry who have been pressing for the right of workers to organize in unions and seeking increases in Bangladesh’s minimum wage regulations” in a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on August 10, 2010.

The ILRF report calls on both companies and the Bangladeshi government to take action to protect civil liberties for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and other labor rights defenders and increase the minimum wage for garment workers to at least $72 per month, the workers’ demand.

“We hope that this report will help bring justice for the leaders and staff of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and, in so doing, advance the cause of Bangladeshi garment workers who seek only the basic dignity of decent work and good wages,” said Bjorn Claeson, author of the report and director of the SweatFree Communities program at ILRF.

Enemies of the Nation or Human Rights Defenders? Fighting Poverty Wages in Bangladesh is available at


The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) is an advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, dedicated to achieving just and humane treatment for workers worldwide. ILRF serves a unique role among human rights organizations as advocates for and with working poor around the world. We believe that all workers have the right to a safe working environment where they are treated with dignity and respect, and where they can organize freely to defend and promote their rights and interests.

A program of the International Labor Rights Forum, SweatFree Communities, coordinates a national network of grassroots campaigns that promotes humane working conditions in apparel and other labor-intensive global industries. SweatFree campaigns build broad community support for sweatshop-free government purchasing and help build a market for decent working conditions. 

Garment Workers in Top Exporters to the US, including Bangladesh, Make Less than One-Third of a Living Wage

A report, published by the Center for American Progress earlier this month, revealed that the meager wages garment workers make, in return for long laborious working days in dangerous conditions, have further decreased over the past decade. The study, prepared by the Worker Rights Consortium, examines 15 of the world’s leading apparel-exporting countries and found that between 2001 and 2011, wages for garment workers in the majority of these countries fell making it nearly impossible for them to afford the minimum necessities of a decent life.

Credit- AP/Mahesh Kumar A
Credit- AP/Mahesh Kumar A

The report, entitled “Global Wage Trends for Apparel Workers,” found that the gap between prevailing wages—the wages paid in general to an average worker—and living wages for garment workers in these countries has only widened. “The most troubling news in this report is that even in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia—where wages were the lowest and least adequate for workers’ needs—workers’ pay actually stagnated or declined over the last decade,” said Ben Hensler, author of the report and deputy director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “This finding underscores the urgent need for those with the greatest power to lift garment worker wages—not just the governments of these countries, but also the U.S. and European brands and retailers that buy the apparel these workers produce. Meaningful action must be taken to raise minimum wages, pay fairer prices to factories, and give workers the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively on their own behalf.”

In Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest apparel exporter that has come under scrutiny after a deadly factory collapse in April, workers make just 14 percent of a living wage. In the other top three exporters to the U.S., China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, workers make 36 percent, 22 percent, and 29 percent, respectively, as reported in this article.

The report examined the trends from 2001 to 2011 in real wages for apparel-sector workers in 15 of the top 21 manufacturing countries. Key findings from the study include:

  • In nine countries—Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, and Thailand—the prevailing real wage for apparel-sector workers in 2011 was less than it was in 2001. That is, apparel-sector workers in the majority of countries studied saw their purchasing power decrease and slipped further away from receiving a living wage.
  • In the six countries where real wages increased from 2001 to 2011, wage growth in two of the countries, Peru and India, was modest—less than 2 percent per year when adjusted for inflation. While wage gains for workers in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Haiti were more substantial, it would take more than 40 years for the prevailing wage rate to equal a living wage even if their recent rates of real wage growth were sustained.
  • Only in China did real wages for apparel-sector workers increase at a rate that would lift workers to the point of receiving a living wage within the next decade. Not surprisingly, the industrial centers in China where workers benefited from these gains have already seen a loss of apparel production, as manufacturers have shifted their facilities, and buyers have shifted their orders, to lower-wage areas both within China and in other countries.