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South Asia’s wage crisis

14 September, 2022Workers across the globe face soaring inflation, supply chain disruptions and a climate crisis. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the inflation rate in March 2022 was more than double that of March 2021.

According to the ILO Global Wage Report 2020-2021, labour productivity in South Asia rose between 2010 and 2019, but actual minimum wage growth trailed behind. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have seen the biggest declines in real minimum wages globally. The report also highlights that in 2019, minimum wage in Bangladesh did not even reach the lowest international poverty line. Wages in India and Sri Lanka were also close to the mark.

Union experience show that even in workplaces where workers can negotiate a long-term wage settlement, in reality employers delay for months and sometimes years before finalizing the agreement. By then the wage rise has already fallen behind the inflation it was supposed to neutralize.

IndustriALL affiliates have relentlessly worked to secure better pay for workers. In Pakistan, after a sustained campaign by IndustriALL affiliates and workers in the carpet industry, the Punjab government announced a wage increase of 2,500 PKR (US$14) in June 2021. But the workers’ struggle did not end there as, despite the government order, employers refused to comply. It took six months before employers agreed to increase wages.

In August 2022, Pakistani affiliates stopped work for over a month in Faisalabad to demand a 16 per cent rise in wages, given the soaring inflation in the country. Pakistan's inflation rate shot up to 27.26 per cent in August, as the country struggled with massive floods compounding already surging prices.

Niaz Khan, general secretary of ILUCIP, says:

“Workers’ wages are not sufficient to meet the rising prices of food and fuel. Employers and governments must acknowledge this and take strong steps to address the issue.”

In Sri Lanka, affiliates have demanded a wage increase of LKR10,000 (US$34) for workers whose monthly salary is below LKR60,000 (US$206), and that the minimum wage should be raised from LKR16,000 (US$55) to LKR26,000 (US$89) per month. The demands have yet to be met. Food inflation in the country reached 93.7 per cent in August. According to the latest World Bank assessment, Sri Lanka is ranked fifth among the ten countries with the highest food price inflation in the world. Affiliates are organizing community kitchen programmes to address the massive food inflation.

Bangladeshi affiliates have demanded an increase in the national minimum wage, which was last revised four years ago and currently stands at 8000 BDT (US$84).

In Nepal, people have taken to the streets to protest a surge in food and fuel prices.

Contract workers at Singareni Collieries Company Limited in India, who earn a fraction of what permanent workers do, called for an indefinite strike for over their demands, which include a wage increase and regularisation of work.

SQ Zama, general secretary of Indian National Mine Workers’ Federation, says:

“It's a very sad situation that while company profits are soaring, workers’ salaries are increasing at a sluggish rate. What makes matters worse is that even for a modest wage increase, workers have to put up a strong fight.”

Apoorva Kaiwar, south-Asia regional secretary of IndustriALL, says:

“Representing workers, we need to fight to ensure that workers get their rightful share in profits. We cannot accept that on one hand profits are soaring while on the other hand workers’ wages are not sufficient to maintain decent standards of living.”

Photo: copyright : Marcel Crozet / ILO