by Naharnet Newsdesk
Bangladesh garment manufacturers shut down indefinitely operations of more than 300 factories at a key industrial hub on Saturday after five days of violent protests over wages, officials said.
President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin made the announcement, saying the plants would reopen only after the government ensures "enough security".
Most of Bangladesh's big garment factories are based at Ashulia. They employ around half a million workers who sew clothing for some of the world's largest retailers such as Wal-Mart, Gap, Tesco, H&M and Carrefour.
"We have decided to close down more than 300 factories at Ashulia industrial area indefinitely. We can't operate in this climate of fear and lawlessness," Mohiuddin told Agence France Presse.
The decision follows the fifth day of protests by tens of thousands of workers who clashed with police, vandalised plants and blocked a key highway for hours, senior police officer Monowar Hossain told AFP.
"Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the unruly workers," Hossain said. The violence in the last five days left scores of policemen and hundreds of protesters injured, police officers have said.
Employees -- who work 10-16 hours a day, six days a week for the lowest garment sector wages in the world -- were demanding a 50 percent pay hike and subsidized food to cope with the rising cost of living.
Union leader Babul Akter Thursday claimed that manufacturers at Ashulia had agreed to raise wages. Some owners also announced that they would raise the wages to help workers cope with increases in rent.
But the BGMEA, which represents all of the country's 4,500 garment factories, denied sealing any deal with the unions.
"It's a lie, total lie. We raised workers salaries by 82 percent just 18 months ago. It's impossible to raise salaries again," Mohiuddin said.
In 2010, Bangladesh garment factories were hit by months of violent protests that forced the government and factory owners to agree to increase wages by 80 percent, or a minimum $37 per month.
The export of garments, which made $19 billion for the impoverished country last year, is the mainstay of the economy of Bangladesh, accounting for 80 percent of its total shipments.
Tensions have been brewing at Ashulia and other textile manufacturing zones in recent months following the abduction and murder of a top garment union leader in April.
Unions have accused Bangladesh's feared security forces of killing him. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded an independent probe into the incident when she visited the country last month.