Between 3 and 11 December the anti-sweatshop campaign, No Sweat, will be touring with members of the National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh.
This grassroots union federation has been at the frontline of a recent wave of strikes and riots. Like the shopworkers in this country, the garment workers of Bangladesh have never felt any benefit from the bumper profits made by the high-street giants. From garment workers being paid 14p an hour through to checkout staff in London on £6 an hour, surplus value is extracted at every opportunity, with each hour of sweated labour contributing to Tesco’s £2.8 billion, Primark’s £111 million, H&M’s £1.07 billion profits last year.
Global recession hitting sweatshop workers in Bangladesh highlights the problems with the middle-class boycott approach to sweatshop labour. The logic of the boycott movement is to run “unethical” corporations out of business and replace them with something nicer. Even if these campaigns were successful and it were possible to get everyone to buy (often expensive) homespun, organic, “fair” trade clothing, the first to suffer would be the sweatshop workers who would go from being exploited to being unemployed.
No Sweat’s approach is to create links of international solidarity to strengthen the workers’ movement here and abroad. This approach leads to much more favourable, progressive outcomes for the sweatshop workers involved.
The Ready-Made Garment (RMG) industry accounts for 75% of Bangladesh’s exports and last year pocketed $10.7 billion. Britain is its third largest export market
Some commentators predict that Bangladesh may survive a global recession because it produces for the low-end of the market. However, competition is increasing. The European Union ended its restrictions on Chinese export quotas last year and the US will do the same at the end of 2008. As China and India are more technologically advanced, Bangladesh can only maintain its competitive edge through driving down wages.
The RMG industry employs 2.2 million workers, with a further 10 million working in dependent industries. In this 90% female workforce, there are workers who are paid as little as 14p an hour and are forced to work up to 18 hours a day; some are as young as 12. As food prices continue to rise and RMG capitalists maintain wage restraint, workers are being pushed to the brink of exhaustion.
Sweatshop bosses are being forced to sell cheap food to their own workforce just to keep them going. However, in order to qualify for the food the workers must produce an ID card, a legal requirement that the bosses are unwilling to issue because it also allows workers to claim unpaid back pay.
The bosses’ solution is to simply replace the exhausted with the “reserve army of labour” from the countryside and keep going.
Despite recent political turmoil that saw a military-backed caretaker government usurp power from the two large bourgeois parties, the RMG capitalists have maintained their share of political power through their organisation the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). There are strong links between the police, army and BGMEA. The BGMEA have made repeated calls for a permanent industrial police force to police the garment industry and crush workers’ organisation and revolt.
Libcom reports that the most militant garment factories are now under military occupation: “[there is] a permanent presence of huge numbers of police and paramilitary forces deployed to keep workers in the workplace and to force them to do unpaid overtime. This prevents workers leaving when disputes arise and, as normally happens, going to other factories to call out fellow workers.”
In spite of the ferocity of these attacks and the fact that the caretaker government has banned all political and trade union activity, workers continue to organise. The strikes and riots have caused millions of pounds worth of damage to the industry. Many workers have been killed, imprisoned and injured in clashes with the police and army but many factories have been burnt down or partially destroyed and the disputes spread very quickly from one factory to the next. Some partial demands have been met but the spontaneous and explosive nature of the demonstrations suggest that there is little organisation to formulate demands.
At the end of August 2008 more than 60 garment workers were injured after clashes with police in Gazipur and Savar. In Savar around 8,000 workers of a garment factory of the Biswas group blocked the Dhaka-Aricha highway for three hours demanding two months' back pay. Police fired around 30 rounds of teargas shells and over 100 rubber bullets in Gazipur at workers demonstrating against the sacking of 18 workers from the Standard Garments factory. A fierce battle between the workers and police took place after demonstrators set up barricades on the Gazipur-Tangail road.
In early September this year, garment workers staged a mass hunger strike demanding a minimum wage of Tk 4500 and the lifting of anti-trade union laws. Other workers employed in three factories at the Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ) have shut factories for two weeks, demanding longer holidays for Eid-ul-Fitr, higher wages, and better conditions.
An Indian-owned GB Garments factory was closed after 400 workers agitated for an eight-day Eid holiday instead of six days.
Two thousand workers at the Korean-owned Softex Garments and three thousand workers at the Taiwanese-owned A-One Garments closed for similar reasons.
Many of the official trade unions are nothing but bureaucratised extortion rackets with ties to various nationalist or Islamist bourgeois political parties. However the National Garment Workers’ Federation and its associates retain their independence and rank-and-file character. The NGWF has been at the forefront of the struggles that started in autumn 2006 and has continued to organise in spite of state repression. It claims 22,000 members in 1,000 factories and organised strikes for a paid Mayday holiday.
In the current climate, workers are largely organising autonomously and according to Amirul Haque Amin from the NGWF, the recent disputes in Gazipur were “nothing but the result of their desperation brought about by hunger and suffering.” In many cases the struggles seem to continue independently of any of the main union federations.
In this context that the caretaker government has announced that it is relaxing its hostility to official unionism so that “collective bargaining agents may hold their stalled elections”. The government claims that it is taking these steps in wants normalise industrial relations with a thick layer of union bureaucracy. The NGWF, which has traditionally organised industrially and not waited for legal union recognition before starting disputes, will hopefully provide an alternative to the bureaucratised unions and a focus for the ongoing struggles.
With new elections coming up in December, Bangladesh is at a crucial juncture. The class struggle has raged on with little let up out of necessity for over two years. The threat of global recession and the changing nature of relations within the Bangladeshi state suggest a new opportunities are opening up for the sweatshop workers of Bangladesh.
The British labour movement must use this speaker tour to strengthen our international links so that we can lend our solidarity in the struggles ahead. We must concentrate our efforts on creating solidarity throughout the supply chain, from the factory to the shopfloor. As globalised capitalism lurches into its first (and hopefully last) crisis, we must learn the lessons from the comrades and sisters who have been at the frontline of the struggle for the past few decades.
Another great threat facing the world, and particularly its working class and poor — the threat of global climate change — is particularly pressing concern in Bangladesh where a one metre rise in sea level will inundate more than 15% of the land mass, displacing over 13 million and destroying large parts of the rice crop. Bangladesh is likely to experience one of the largest mass migrations in history, making the construction of a heavily policed border fence by the Indian government, all the more sinister.
The economic crisis coupled with the threat of global climate change demands that we assert a vision of a united international working class against the nightmare scenarios of the bourgeoisie. This tour is a good place to start.
• Tour details: http://www.nosweat.org.uk