Rahima, a cutting helper at Russel Garments in Narayanganj, used to buy low-priced fishes and occasionally broiler chicken, especially for her children. But she cannot afford fish and chicken anymore with her monthly salary of Tk9,000.
She had to settle for eggs although the price of four eggs crossed Tk50.
Rahima is one of many low-income garment workers who are trying to survive by cutting costs as commodity prices keep soaring.
"I bought three eggs this Tuesday. Earlier, I used to buy broiler chicken for Tk120, which is Tk200 now and I cannot afford it. To make things worse, I hear my landlord will increase house rent," said Rahima.
"I used to send some money to my parents in the village. It has been four months, I could not send any," she added.
Five other garment workers, living in Dhaka and nearby areas spoke about similar struggles to cope with rising prices. They too are forced to reduce their expenditure on protein intake and the amount they used to send home.
A number of large garment factories in the country have started Fair Price Shops under different names, which are still in operation, with the aim of providing goods to the workers at a slightly lower price than the market price. However, due to soaring prices of commodities, prices in those stores have increased as well. In fact, operating costs to run the stores have gone up by 10-15% due to fuel price hike.
These workers said they have not received family cards to buy subsidised goods from the government.
Commodity prices have been rising for the past few months, naturally pushing the inflation up. According to the latest estimates by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), Bangladesh is experiencing the highest inflation in the last eight years.
Earlier this month, the government hiked fuel oil prices by a whopping 51%, the highest ever. As a result, the prices of almost all commodities skyrocketed beyond the reach of not only garment workers, but all classes of low-earners.
According to the data published by the government agency Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) last Thursday (August 17), the price of rice increased by about 12%, flour by 75%, lentil (moshur) by 41%, dal (Ankor) by 53%, soybean oil by 41%, Chicken (broiler) 56%, and eggs 54%.
Sharif, a worker of SF Washing Ltd at Kanchpur area, said he has not bought chicken for the past three to four months. Now he has no option but to settle for low quality tilapia and pangas fish.
"We really need our salary to increase at this time," he said.
Labour leaders have also been demanding for increasing workers' wages. Last March, workers took to the streets in the capital demanding a pay rise.
Kalpona Akter, executive director at Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, believes that workers' wage wages should increase to help them survive in the current reality.
"Salary of garment workers' increase by 5% of the basic pay annually. But commodity prices are increasing at a much higher rate than that. In this situation, other than the wage increase, they should be given dearness allowance and rationing (supply of subsidised goods)," she said, adding, "They may take to the streets again like in Mirpur if they find their back against the wall."
The RMG owners however are not willing to increase the wages even though they accept the fact that the rising price of goods have increased pressure on the workers. Although the price of imported goods has increased due to the appreciation of the dollar, exporters are earning Tk10 or more per dollar (on actual retention excluding other costs including import of raw materials).
Mohammad Hatem, executive president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), said we may get Tk10 more due to increase in dollar value, but we are having to spend Tk15 due to increase in fuel oil price, electricity-gas price, 5% increment etc.
"As a result, it is not possible to give new wages or dearness allowance at this moment. He said, not only garment workers, everyone is under pressure," he said.
Shahidullah Azim, acting president BGMEA told The Business Standard that currently, the volume of orders are 20% to 30% below capacity in almost all factories.
"On the other hand, production cost has increased by about 8% in the last four to five months. So, it is not the right time to raise wages. Besides, as per the rules, the wage board is supposed to be formed next year," he said.
He claimed that some factories are now paying the workers' salaries by taking loans.
Pointing out that the exporters are not getting additional financial benefits due to the increased price of the dollar, he said, the profit of the dollar is mainly going to the bank, not the exporters.
No progress in implementing rationing for workers:
Even though the workers' demands to provide daily necessities at subsidised prices have been strong for the past few years, neither the government nor the owners have taken any initiative. On 15 March this year Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) urged the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) to arrange 40 trucks to sell subsidised goods in areas where most garment industries are located. But, BGMEA sources said no progress has yet been made.
Mohammad Hatem said that they will write again requesting the same.
Tawhidur Rahman, president at Bangladesh textile garments workers federation told The Business Standard, rationing needs to be made accessible to workers in garment industry-dominated areas.
Prices increased at Fair Price Shops as well:
According to commodity price calculation by the Urmi Group's Fair price store, which is a initiative for some 14,000 workers, price of soybean oil has increased by 17%, flour by 25%, salt by 31%, lentils by 21% and coarse rice by 12% in the last five months. However, the store is selling these products at a lower price than the market price.
DBL Group, Fakir Fashion, Mohammadi Group, Ananta Group, Epyllion Group, Cute Dress, SQ Celsius, and Northern Apparel have also opened fair price shops for their workers. Outside the industry, Square Group, Meghna Group and Akij Group are said to have such activities.
M A Rahim Feroz, vice chairman of DBL Group told The Business Standard, "We are selling at the price we are buying. We are not making any profit. But recently our operating cost has increased by about 15% due to increased expenses."
He stressed that such initiatives should begin in all factories and urged the government to come forward in this regard.