By Sacha Ismail
Bangladesh is convulsed by fierce class struggles, centred around the country’s garment industry. Many tens of thousands of workers have gone on strike, blocked roads, attacked factories and other buildings, demonstrated, fought the police and rioted in the streets. Every day comes news of fresh strikes in a variety of industries — mainly the ready-made garment (RMG) sector, but also mill workers, river transport workers, rail workers, journalists, lecturers and teachers.
The revolt began on 20 May with garment workers’ strikes in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka — beginning in a small number of factories over issues including the arrest of worker activists and non-payment of wages. By 23 May this struggle had been generalised, with action at a much larger number of factories and demonstrations across the city. A massive army and police presence around garment factories, in some cases completely blockading and creating check points for entry to Export Processing Zones, temporarily calmed things; but strikes continued to take place at numerous factories, leading to solidarity strikes from nearby workplaces and semi-spontaneous demonstrations.
Police attacks on workers were met by workers attacking, damaging and in some cases setting fire to factories. By the end of June, the government estimated that the struggle had cost the RMG employers $70 million. (Now its estimate has risen to twice that.) A number of factories were closed in long-term lock outs to prevent further conflicts breaking out.
In response to the workers’ action, the government agreed to release arrested workers and union officials, and drop charges against them. It also set up a tripartite (government-employer-union) commission which agreed to a series of demands: including the right to form trade unions, weekly holiday, maternity leave and appointment letters and ID cards (as proof of employment to prevent abuse by employers). This meeting also created a new minimum wage board, again with representatives from the government, the garment factory owners and the union federation SKOP.
Unsurprisingly, however, the garment workers and their bosses had very different ideas about how any settlement emerging from the conflict should look. Most employers dragged their feet even over immediate issues like back-pay, while the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) made it clear that it regarded the introduction of union rights purely as a mean of preventing workers' agitation. “We have no objection to giving workers trade union rights,” BGMEA spokesman Tipu Munshi told Reuters. “But we also want industrial peace to ensure unhindered production and export shipments on schedule.”
At the same time, the bosses resisted any significant increase in the minimum wage for RMG workers. This is currently set at 940 Bangladeshi takas, or less than £8, a month. SKOP demanded 3000 takas a month, pointing out that price of essential items has increased massively.
During the course of September, it became known that minimum wage board was planning to announce 1662.50 taka (about £13.50) a month as its figure for the minimum wage. This was confirmed on 5 October. The level and implementation of the minimum wage are among the main issues which have led to renewed conflict in the autumn.
It is important to understand the context of these struggles, including why the garment sector is so important for Bangladesh’s ruling class. Garments are the country’s biggest export, bringing in more than $6 billion out of a total GDP of $63.5 billion, three quarters of its export earnings. Bangladesh has more than 4,000 garment factories, employing about two million people (mostly women, though it seems that most of the protesters in recent months have been men), about 40% of its industrial workers. Bangladeshi garment workers get the lowest wages in the world. The average wage in sector is about $16 a month: by contrast apparel workers in India and Pakistan get at least 20 cents per hour, in China 23 cents, in Sri Lanka 40 cents and in Thailand 78 cents.
In part because of these law wages and other anti-worker laws (as well as WTO restrictions on China), the industry is booming. Bangladeshi RMG imports to the US have increased by 25% this year. In this environment, the Bangladeshi capitalists are manoeuvring on two fronts: against other ruling classes for an increased share of the world textiles and garments market; and against their workers for an increased share of the surplus. They are very talented in both fields. For instance, the Bangladeshi media has reported that the garment industry currently owes as much as $300,000 in back pay, a remarkable figure considering how low wages are.
In the last few weeks, there has been a revival of agitation, with dozens of factories trashed by striking workers. On October 15, SKOP and the National Garment Workers’ Federation called out workers at all apparel factories for a national strike on a number of demands, including bonuses for the eid festival but above all a higher minimum wage. (The NGWF is a more rank and file-oriented garment workers' union which has undertaken a massive organising drive in recent years and played a central role in the recent agitation.) They and other unions have also called for the withdrawal of the labour law which has recently come into force. This law sets ten hours as the standard day for RMG workers and maintains anti-strike provisions, while creating bodies for the enforcement of working standards that the unions have described as toothless.
There is widespread expectation of more violence, with bosses once again calling on the government to protect their profits by force and the government warning that it will not tolerate “anarchy” in Dhaka and threatening the creation of a dedicated armed force to protect garment factories in the capital.
Meanwhile, the last week has also seen SKOP organise 24-hour strike action among not only RMG but also sugar, jute and water transport workers to demand the swift implementation of various agreements. SKOP’s is also raising demands including an end to privatisation and the revision of Bangladesh’s labour laws in line with ILO conventions. The strikes have included blockades of roads, railways and waterways (a very important means of transport in Bangladesh) and other militant action. At the same time, rail workers have taken part in strike action against the selling off of the publicly owned Bangladesh Railways.
These struggles are incredibly important. With over 120 million people and a rapidly growing economy, Bangladesh is one of South Asia’s most important centres of capitalist development — and of its symptoms, working-class misery and working-class resistance. The Bangladeshi workers’ movement is relatively small and incredibly fragmented (there are literally dozens of union federations and dozens of unions operating in each industry) but, as the events of the last months has shown, it is has enormous potential power.
Bangladeshi workers face many enemies, from a government which serves the interests of the RMG bosses, to an Islamist movement which has attacked garment workers’ unions for organising women. We need to find ways to make solidarity urgently.
Tesco faces child labour allegations
S M Fazlul Hoque of the BGMEA, dismissed the allegations on the basis that “employing child labour exposes you to all sorts of punitive action from the buyers”. So nothing to do with right and wrong, then?
Bangladesh was officially declared Child Labour Free in 1994, and Tesco spokesmen have said that it “abhors” child labour. But whatever the reality of the accusations, Channel 4’s claim is not difficult to believe.