The formation of a wage board for workers is always a special occasion because it is a recognition of the need for an objective review of the existing wage structure preferably for a higher one. But given the unrest over the just announced minimum wage for readymade garment workers, their counterparts of the special zones may not be particularly optimistic of a big raise of their reward for their labour. In fact, there is little to differentiate between the wages of RMG workers and those in the Export processing Zones (EPZs) and Economic Zones (EZs). The minimum wages reviewed upward in 2018 for both RMG workers and those in the special zones were Tk8,000 and 8,200---a difference of only Tk 200. Remarkably, the apparel units in the EPZs contributed to 54 per cent of their total income earning of US$8.5 billion from export in the fiscal year 2021-22. No wonder, of the 0.52 million workers there, 66 per cent are women.
Clearly, the sorority and fraternity of RMG workers are existent in garment factories in special zones and in belts outside of those. However, the restriction on forming workers' trade unions is there in both cases but those working in the EPZs and EZs are governed by stricter laws and rules. European and North American buyers of apparel from Bangladesh have reservations for such restrictions. Well, without collective bargaining bodies for workers, industrial relations often risk situation turning from bad to worse. Even special industrial and economic zones cannot be exempted from this basic condition of industrial relations. Workers in the EPZs and EZs can form Workers' Welfare Associations (WWA) but other than becoming part of the wage board, its members have no right to advance the collective bargaining power. This surely does not go with the modern concept of industrial management and employer-employee relations.
There is no point turning factories into Hey Market tragedies. Although rules separate working conditions in special industrial and economic zones from those in the domestic tariff areas, there is hardly much difference in the general welfare statuses of workers of the two distinct areas. This needs to be changed for the better. The minimum wage took six long years until 2018 for an upward review hardly to both special-zone and industrial-belt workers' satisfaction. Particularly, the last couple of years' soaring inflation demanded a much earlier review of the workers' wages. Even the minimum wage board formed for RMG workers in April last did take almost seven months for the announcement of a new wage structure now unacceptable to workers.
Had there been a collective bargaining agency, the current unrest, violence and consequent deaths could be avoided through negotiations. A section of workers and an unnamed third party and even international conspiracy have been blamed for stoking the unrest without admitting the hardship and misery of workers at a time of record inflation. The Tk12,500 announced as the minimum wage for RMG workers at the entry level barely covers the inflation and devaluation of Taka. Hopefully, the wage board constituted for EPZ and EZ workers will not follow in the pattern of that of the garment workers. Now the EU visiting team is closely noticing undesirable developments in the sector. In turmoil, the RMG risks losing more than its owners foresee if they go on a hard line.