DHAKA — Thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers who stitch clothes for top Western brands blocked highways, attacked factories and looted shops in Dhaka on Friday, after rejecting a government wage hike.
Violent protests -- including widespread looting and arson -- broke out in multiple locations across the capital, police said, forcing factories to close as riot police struggled to disperse crowds with baton charges and tear gas.
In the central district of Mohokhali around 3,000 workers attacked police, stoned factories and blocked a flyover, said local police chief Abdur Rob.
"We have the situation under control, but there are still protests erupting in other parts of the city," Rob said, adding that several factories in his area had been seriously damaged.
On Tuesday, the government said it would raise the minimum monthly wage for garment workers from 1,662 taka -- the lowest industry salary worldwide -- to 3,000 taka (43 dollars). Some unions had demanded 5,000 taka.
Thousands of workers also blocked the city's main Tejgaon link road. They pulled down steel gates protecting nearby factories, smashed windows and machinery and vandalised cars, police said.
At least 5,000 protestors rampaged through Dhaka's up-market Gulshan area, where many embassies and foreign aid groups have their offices.
Gulshan police chief Nural Alam said the protesters had targetted the area's high-end shops, looting the contents and then setting fire to the buildings.
Hundreds of riot police have been deployed, he added.
The government wage offer followed months of protests in key industrial zones that forced factory closures, delaying the delivery of major orders for Western firms.
On June 22, hundreds of thousands of workers closed the key Ashulia export area, which supplies retailers such as Wal-Mart, H & M and Marks & Spencer, a major blow for an industry aiming to steal contracts from Chinese competitors.
"The workers' emotion is running very high," said Mosherafa Mishu, head of the Garment Workers Unity Forum, which has rejected the proposed wage hike.
"The government has just done what the garment factory owners want -- this offer is not acceptable to workers," Mishu told AFP.
"They are frustrated, they feel let down by the government -- they thought they would get a good salary and then are just offered nothing," she added.
Mishu warned that unless a better offer was forthcoming, workers would strike and organise "a militant movement" to protest pay and conditions.
Last week, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told parliament that workers' salaries were "inhuman" and said manufacturers should share profits with the industry's 3.5 million workforce.
But the powerful garment sector, which accounted for more than 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports last year, staunchly opposed any significant increase.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association condemned the violence, saying the government had offered a "huge rise" amounting to an 80 percent increase.
"Against this background, this vandalism is unacceptable. It hurts the industry, the government, the country," said the association's vice president Shafiul Islam. "We hope the government takes the necessary action against those responsible immediately."
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