In Bangladesh, where the rhythmic hum of sewing machines echo through the crowded streets, a quiet revolution brews. The country’s garment sector, its largest industry, is the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy, contributing a staggering 84% to its export earnings. Yet, behind the glitz and glamour of fashion, lies a grim reality – the plight of the millions of workers who toil tirelessly to make this industry thrive.

For years, labour rights organisations have been sounding the alarm, demanding a minimum wage increase to Tk25,000 for these unsung heroes of the textile world. Their cry for justice is rooted in the belief that the blood and sweat of the ready-made garment, or RMG, workers deserve more recognition and reward. But will their voices finally be heard, and will their lives, currently teetering on the brink with a meager Tk8,000 wage, see a meaningful change?

The government took a step towards addressing this issue by forming a wage board on April 9, tasked with recommending a new wage structure for the over 4 million garment workers of Bangladesh. This move was long overdue, given the rapid depreciation of the taka, which swelled the coffers of garment factory owners by an astonishing Tk90,000 crore last year. The growth was striking, and it raises a pertinent question – will the workers finally get a share of the profits that they’ve played a pivotal role in generating?

Comparing wages on a global scale, the disparity is stark. In China, RMG workers make around Tk24,890, while their counterparts in Vietnam earn Tk15,660. Turkey sets a minimum wage at Tk29,165, and workers in Malaysia receive Tk25,935, followed by the Philippines with approximately Tk23,180. Even Cambodia recently raised its minimum wage to Tk22,587. Bangladesh, the second-largest garment exporting country, proudly wears this badge, yet it clings to low wages – a dichotomy that begs for change.

The story becomes more poignant when we examine the cost of living. The standard family food cost is set at Tk16,529, a figure far beyond the reach of most garment workers who can only afford to spend Tk9,198, covering a mere 56% of their basic needs.

Research conducted by the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling paints an even bleaker picture. It reveals that garment workers earn less than half of what they need to meet their basic needs, encompassing food, housing, and healthcare. These findings underscore the urgent need for a substantial wage hike.

The Centre for Policy Dialogue proposed a minimum monthly wage of Tk17,568 for these workers, a figure that still falls short of what is necessary for them to lead a decent life.

A survey by the Centre for Policy Dialogue found that 42% of RMG workers are currently receiving salaries below Tk8,000. This distressing reality highlights the vast chasm between the existing wages and the cost of living. As the country grapples with an inflation rate nearing 10%, the situation becomes increasingly dire for these workers.

As if these economic hardships were not enough, a recent report from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) has revealed a disturbing health concern among garment workers in Bangladesh. Alarming nutritional deficiency rates have been recorded, closely linked to the persistently low minimum wages. Inflation only exacerbates the situation, pushing workers further into a cycle of poverty where they struggle to secure the basic supplies needed for survival. This situation is particularly dire for female workers, who often do not receive proper overtime compensation or maternity allowances, further complicating their ability to access essential nutrition and healthcare.

In the quest for a just and equitable wage, labour rights organizations, workers, and concerned citizens have a compelling argument. The garment industry, once a symbol of economic growth, should not come at the expense of the people who make it thrive. The men and women who sew the fabric of our society deserve to be paid fairly – not just to survive, but to thrive.

The time for change is now. Bangladesh must acknowledge the critical role of its RMG workers and ensure they are compensated fairly for their labour. While the government’s initiative to form a wage board is a step in the right direction, it must be followed by concrete actions that result in a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

The international community also bears a responsibility to support this cause. Brands and companies that source garments from Bangladesh must prioritise fair wages for workers in their supply chains. Consumers, too, can make a difference by choosing products that uphold ethical labour practices.

The garment workers of Bangladesh have long laboured in the shadows, contributing significantly to the nation’s economic prosperity. It is high time their contributions are recognised, and their basic rights to a fair wage, decent living conditions, and dignity in the workplace are upheld.

The call for a minimum wage of Tk25,000 is not just a demand for higher pay, it is a plea for justice, fairness, and a brighter future for millions of hardworking individuals who deserve nothing less.

Md Ariful Islam is an independent researcher and anthropology graduate from The University of Dhaka.

This article was first published on Dhaka Tribune.