During a visit to Dhaka, H&M chief executive Karl-Johan Persson inspected a factory where workers make clothes for the company on wages starting at $37 a month — a figure that often triggers violent strikes.
“We want the workers to be treated in a good way. Being a responsible company, we see low wages in the industry is a major point that is close to our heart and a major concern,” Persson told reporters on Tuesday evening.
“We demand that the Bangladeshi government increase minimum wages and consider yearly wage reviews for the workers,” he said after visiting a plant and meeting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Bangladesh garment exports were worth $19 billion last year, or 80 percent of total national shipments, and the sector is the mainstay of the country’s economy, employing 40 percent of its industrial workforce.
The export business relies on low labour costs but is plagued by frequent unrest over demands for better wages, which are set by the government after consultations with factory owners and trade unions.
In June, more than 300 factories that make clothes for brands including H&M, Wal-Mart and Gap were shut down for over a week as tens of thousands of workers rioted over low wages, complaining of rising rent and food costs.
At least 100 people were injured in the clashes and dozens of plants were damaged.
Factory owners rejected the demands, saying the minimum wage had risen 80 percent in two years and that further increases would threaten their survival.
H&M bought apparel worth $1.5 billion from Dhaka last year, making the company the biggest European buyer of Bangladeshi goods, according to a local exporters group.
Asked whether H&M could insist on higher pay, Persson said that the company wanted “a long-term relationship with the suppliers… but we want the workers to get fair wages as well”.
According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a Brussels-based textile rights group, a Bangladeshi worker needs about $130 to cover monthly living expenses due to rapid inflation.
Minimum wages were first introduced in Bangladesh in 1994. Since then they were reviewed twice in 2006 and 2010 after deadly protests.
Many workers live in communal dormitories and save up money to take back to their families and home villages.