ISHWARDI, Bangladesh — 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. 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 U.S. and Europe: cheap labor and foreign investment.
Both were at stake on that March morning. Workers earning as little as $50 a month 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. “We all know the importance of these factories and this industry for Bangladesh.”
Bangladesh, once irrelevant to the global economy, is now an export powerhouse, second only to China in global apparel exports. Garments are critical to Bangladesh’s economy, accounting for 80 percent of manufacturing exports and more than three million jobs.
But 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 double-digit inflation, protests have become increasingly common.
In response, Bangladeshi leaders have deployed the security tools of the state to keep factories humming. A high-level government committee monitors the garment sector and includes ranking officers from the military, the police and intelligence agencies.
“The garment industry is No. 1 for exports and dollars for the country,” said Alonzo Suson, who runs the Solidarity Center in Dhaka, an AFL-CIO-affiliated labor rights group. “Any slowdown of that development is a national security issue.”
The Bangladeshi government has resisted expanding labor rights in a country where the owners of about 5,000 garment factories wield enormous influence. Factory owners are major political donors and have moved into news media, buying newspapers and television stations.
In Parliament, roughly two-thirds of the members belong to the country’s three biggest business associations. At least 30 factory owners hold seats in Parliament, about 10 percent of the total.
“Politics and business is so enmeshed that one is kin to the other,” said Iftekharuzzaman, director of Transparency International Bangladesh. “There is a coalition between the sector and people in positions of power. The negotiating position of the workers is very, very limited.”