Two weeks into the tea workers' protests, you should know by now that they earn only Tk117 to Tk120 per day – around Tk3,600 a month. This level of worker exploitation might have angered you, and hence, you have been sharing supportive posts on social media.
Now let me tell you something you might not know: it is not only tea or garment workers, the government has published a few dozen gazettes over the years setting the minimum wage for different sectors – which perhaps is a good thing.
But what may not sound alright to you is the figure they set as minimum wage for workers in different sectors.
For example, the minimum wage of a common worker in the soap and cosmetics industry, at the district level, is Tk5,640. A wash man or packing worker in the prawn industry gets a minimum wage of Tk6,700, while for a cutting-fitting and iron man in the leather goods and shoe industry, the minimum wage is Tk7,100.
These figures are almost double of what a tea worker earns. But during a time of chronic rise in food prices and skyrocketing living costs, how these people are surviving – even if they are at the district level – is something the tea workers' sad stories have revealed once again.
Besides, there are doubts about whether this meagre amount set by the government is even implemented at all.
So why are minimum wages, by design, set so low? Why does it fail to consider the rising living costs? Does it account for the changing rates?
"What has been set as the minimum wage has been done arbitrarily. Just the way it does not have a connection or relation to workers' expectations, it also has no relation to scientific calculations," said Mujahidul Islam Khan Selim, former president of the Communist Party of Bangladesh.
"The calculation should have been based on what the worker is producing, keeping in mind the calories he requires to produce them again. This has not been considered," Selim said.
"There is an adage that you must feed the cow before you send it to plough the field. If you do not feed the cow properly, it will not have the energy to plough. This minimum necessity has not been thought through in setting the minimum wages," he added.
In the last several years, the country has progressed along several indicators, but when it comes to the labour market in regards to labour rights – where the first thing is wages, followed by workplace safety and working hours – Bangladesh's treatment of its workforce has largely been problematic.
"Two factors are at play here," said Economist Dr Sayema Haque Bidisha. "First of all, the minimum wages do not cover all the sectors. Secondly, the question is, are minimum wages being set keeping people's basic requirements in mind?" she added.
"What are the parameters for setting the minimum wage? Poverty line or the living wage concept? What methodology we choose is not clear," Sayema Haque said.
"In determining the minimum wage, the wage board perhaps tries to stick to a middle ground of what the workers' demand and what the owners' want. They perhaps set it slightly more than what the owners want, or a little above the earlier wage," she said.
"But, considering inflation, unemployment, and the Covid-led situation, is that amount sufficient?" she went on.
The issue of minimum wage is coming to our attention now because of the tea workers' protests. But such plight of Bangladeshi workers has been dragging on for years.
"If you think of the garment sector, which is the most organised, before the incident of Rana Plaza it too was exploitative. Labour was so cheap that many owners actually exploited the workers. The tea workers' minimum wage is unbelievably low, but if you look at other sectors, exploitation is not any less. There is exploitation in the formal sector as well," Sayema Haque explained.
The minimum wage gazettes are actually quite detailed. The gazettes even mention periodically revising the rates. But does that really happen?
Rizwanul Islam, Former Special Advisor, Employment Sector, International Labour Office, Geneva, after observing the last 20 years has found that the growth of real wages in the early 2000s was slow. It grew substantially from 2008 to 2012, before stagnating again. It grew again from 2015 or 2016, only to fall after the pandemic.
"In our estimate, real wages are now falling. The simple indicator is that the rate at which the wage rate index is growing is falling short of the consumer price index (CPI). We saw some rise in real wages for a few years, but that trend did not sustain," Rizwanul Islam said, adding, "there must be something in the system where there are issues. We need to look at them."
When asked what issues are holding wages back, he said, "You can at least put forward some hypothesis: whether the actual wages are being adjusted to the increase in prices. There is of course a provision on paper to provide a rise every year – 5% or so. Now, if you look at this 5% figure and compare it with the general inflation rate, you can understand that it is not enough to cover even the general price index."
"And then for the workers - whether it is in industries or any other sector - it is not general inflation that matters. It is inflation of the items they consume more. That is why the concept of a cost of living index of industrial workers used to be there. I am not sure whether we still collect any data on that," he further added.
The major items in the budget of a worker are food, housing and transport.
"The rate at which the prices of these items increase could certainly be very different, and most probably higher than the general inflation. So, even if there is an annual adjustment, that adjustment has failed to compensate for the rise in the workers' cost of living," he said.
And secondly, it is not only about an adjustment to the cost of living. There should be an adjustment to improvements in labour productivity, so that the workers can also get a share of the fruits of economic growth.
And finally, comes the issue of humanity.
"Even at a small district level, how unrealistic a salary like Tk5,000 is, does not require telling. Substantial minimum wage adjustments are needed both in terms of prices and labour productivity in all sectors of the economy, very quickly, to bring the level up even to a reasonable level," Rizwanul said.
Mujahidul Islam Khan Selim said, "What a worker needs to live as a societal being – not as an animal – has not been considered in the minimum wage.
"Forget the current rate of inflation and other issues; let us go six months back. Even then, a person needed at least Tk20,000 monthly for survival. We have been demanding, from different workers' organisations, for Tk20,000 as the national minimum wage," he concluded.