The air thickened with tear gas as police and paramilitary officers jogged into the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone firing rubber bullets and swinging cane poles. Panicked factory workers tried to flee. A seamstress crumpled to the ground, knocked unconscious by a shot in the head.
Dozens of people were bloodied and hospitalized. The officers were cracking down on protests at two garment factories inside this industrial area in western Bangladesh. But they were also protecting two ingredients of a manufacturing formula that has quietly made Bangladesh a leading apparel exporter to the United States and Europe: cheap labor and foreign investment.
Both were at stake on that March morning. Workers earning as little as $50 a month, less than the cost of one of the knit sweaters they stitched for European stores, were furious over a cut in wages. Their anger was directed at the Hong Kong and Chinese bosses of the two factories, turning a labor dispute into something potentially much larger.
“If any foreigner got injured or killed, it would damage the country’s image around the globe,” said a police supervisor, Akbar Hossein, who participated in the crackdown. “We all know the importance of these factories and this industry.”
Bangladesh, once poor and irrelevant to the global economy, is now an export powerhouse, second only to China in global apparel exports, as factories churn out clothing for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and H&M. Global retailers like Target and Walmart now operate sourcing offices in Dhaka, the capital. Garments are critical to Bangladesh’s economy, accounting for 80% of manufacturing exports and more than three million jobs.
But with “Made in Bangladesh” labels now commonplace in American stores, Bangladesh’s manufacturing formula depends on its having the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month. During the past two years, as workers have seen their meager earnings eroded by inflation, protests and clashes with the police have become increasingly common.