As the death toll mounts from disasters at Bangladesh's garment factories, the country has set up a panel to discuss raising the minimum wage for low-wage garment workers. According to Agence France-Presse, the decision was largely precipitated by a wave of worker protests: “We’ve set up a minimum wage board for the garment sector. We did it in view of the workers’ demand to hike their salaries,” textile minister Abdul Latif Siddique told AFP. A typical Bangladeshi garment worker takes home less than $40 a month, a wage that Pope Francis has condemned as akin to slave labour. Their minimum wage was last raised—by 80 percent—in November 2010. The panel will include union representatives as well as factory owners, Siddique added. “There is no doubt the salaries will be hiked,” he said. The announcement came as the death toll from the country’s worst industrial disaster climbed to 1,126, 19 days after a nine-storey garment factory complex in a suburb of Dhaka caved in and buried thousands of workers. Workers at the country’s garment-manufacturing hub of Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka left their factories en masse Sunday morning to demand an increase in wages.When the minimum wage was last raised, in 2010, to roughly $38 a month, the impetus was also worker protests.The recent tragedy at Rana Plaza is only one in a string of horrific accidents in a barely regulated industry. The death toll since 2005 from fires and other preventable incidents at factories in Bangladesh now exceeds 1,800, according to garment-industry watchdogs—including more than 110 killed by a fire at the Wal-Mart-affiliated Tazreen factory in November.Last week, In These Times' Michelle Chen discussed the need to hold Western corporations accountable for their overseas contractors' abysmal working conditions: In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, a global consensus seems to be forming that the trail of blame can be traced upward through the production chain, from the shop floor to the boardrooms of the global retail giants whose labels have turned up in the wreckage. The corporations that have been implicated so far, including Western giants Wal-Mart, Primark, Benetton, GAP and H&M, have more power than any other international stakeholder to reform the industry. But this will only happen if they're pressured into making fundamental changes to an intrinsically exploitative structure. These include not just paying the immediate cost of safety remediations, but also strengthening workplace protections, ensuring transparent and objective factory audits, and enabling workers to organize unions, which have faced brutal suppression as the politically influential export sector has boomed.
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