Textile strikes rock Bangladesh

August 24, 2010

Snehal Shingavi analyzes the battle shaking Bangladesh's textile industry--and the international manufacturers who set up shop there to take advantage of low wages.

OVER THE past month, Bangladesh's textile industry--one of the most exploitative in the world--has been rocked by strikes and protests.

The level of repression used against the Bangladeshi textile workers, largely women, exposes the dark underbelly of globalization in Asia. Textile manufacturers have been flooding into the country in the last several years as workers in other countries, especially China, have successfully fought for higher wages. When the textile bosses came to Bangladesh, the minimum wage was less than 10 cents an hour.

The strikes began in mid-July when a massive general strike in the ready-made-garment industry shut down the capital city of Dhaka.

The immediate reason for the strike was the increase in the cost of basic commodities in Bangladesh, especially foodstuffs, which have quickly outstripped wages that haven't risen since 2006, the last time that textile workers went on strike. Textile workers get 1,887 takas a month (roughly $25)--most economists put the basic income needed to survive in Dhaka at around 8,000 takas.

Striking garment workers who gathered to protest low wages flee police firing tear gas and rubber bullets
Striking garment workers who gathered to protest low wages flee police firing tear gas and rubber bullets

Even though the police attacked the strike and forced the workers back to work, the protests scared the ruling Awami League party into offering a minimum wage increase to 3,000 takas a month (roughly $42) at the end of July.

The workers had originally demanded an increase to 5,000 takas, and in disgust with the meager increase, the protests continued. The workers set up barricades and roadblocks, set fire to cars, and marched through the streets.

The mainstream press was predictably up in arms over the actions of the workers (calling it, in most instances, a "rampage"). They were less inclined to notice the excesses of the Bangladeshi police or of the bosses, who were lobbying to resist even this pay increase another 4 months, giving some of them enough time to move or threaten to move.

The textile mill owners shut down some 250 factories and asked for police support to crush the strike. Some 100 workers were injured in the clashes that followed, in which police used tear gas and water cannons against the strikers. There were also some fairly serious attacks on children who live in the area.

The government even called out the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police unit that normally deals with organized crime and terrorist threats, to go after the workers. Unsurprisingly, there will be no investigation into the workers' claims that the bosses are the ones involved in organized crime to terrorize the workers. The workers were eventually forced back to work with some vague assurances that wage increases would be forthcoming sometime in the next three months.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufactures & Exporters Association (BKMEA)--the two main organizations of textile mill owners--have both said that they will not raise wages higher than the 3000-takas level mandated by the government, and that it is the government's responsibility to enforce discipline on the workers.

More than 4,000 workers were arrested, and others were later rounded up after the police used television footage to identify strike "leaders." Key leftist figures associated with the strike's more radical wing have been arrested or threatened with arrest.

Mantu Ghosh, head of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB)'s Narayanganj division and affiliated with the CPB-led Garment Trade Union Center, was detained earlier in the month. Mahbubur Rahman Ismail, president of the Narayanganj branch of the Bangladeshi Socialist Party and connected to the Garments Sramik Sangram Parishad, said that his offices and home were raided by the police.

Some of the more recent protests seem to have been a response to this direct attack on the workers' leadership. This has also become a new point of organizing for the left in Bangladesh, organized in the Ganatantrik Bam Morcha, which has issued demands calling for the release of the arrested garment workers and their leaders.

It's also clear that the protests are not spontaneous, at least not in the way that the media is describing them, nor are they work of terrorists, as the bosses have claimed. In reality, they are the result of some painstaking work by the leftist unions.

THE BOSSES have been desperate to get the factories back to work and get police protection for their investments.

Part of the reason is that the protesters have been targeting textile factories and have inflicted some serious damage. But the more important reason is that a slowdown in production in one of the most high-paced industries has a devastating effect on profits. The Bangladesh garment manufacturers are already claiming losses of around $113 million. That includes losses from lost work, damage to garments and property damage. Already, the textile manufacturers are threatening to leave Bangladesh, a country which they just moved to from China, citing the low cost of Bangladeshi labor as the primary factor.

This is why the attacks on the labor unions are so important for the state and for business in Bangladesh. It gives them some wiggle room in a tense economic situation. Part of the way police are making their case against the unions in Bangladesh is by torturing labor activists into making confessions against their respective organizations. As the New York Times reported:

[L]abor and human rights advocacy groups said at least one worker has told his colleagues that he was tortured into giving false evidence against himself and other labor leaders before he escaped from custody. Advocates also said that they were worried about the safety of people arrested in recent days.

The Bangladeshi High Court had to order the police not to torture labor leader Mantu Ghosh, exposing what are certainly ordinary practices for the Bangladeshi police. This, of course, should make one wonder about the fate of the thousands of other laborers who were arrested. Home Minister Advocate Sahara Khatun has already said that she will punish everyone involved in the protests that took place in mid-August.

The garment industry is clearly Bangladesh's most important export industry, accounting for some 80 percent of the country's total exports, and the largest, employing some 3.5 million workers. That means that the fortunes of the Bangladeshi economy are intimately tied to this one industry.

In fact, it was the structural dependency of Bangladesh that prompted Bangladesh to try to attract textile manufacturers to the country in the first place. (The other way that Bangladesh makes a dent in its large trade imbalance is from its other major export: workers it sends to work overseas.) Textiles only account for about 5 percent of the economy, but they play a very large role in driving Bangladesh's growth.

As a result, no matter which party is in power, it needs to woo the garment industry. This accounts for the vacillating position of the ruling Awami League, which relies on workers for votes, but has to do the bidding of the factory owners if it wants to keep the economy afloat in the short term.

THE GLOBAL economic downturn has put a squeeze on the profits of the textile industry in Bangladesh, and it is looking to survive the problem by squeezing wages. As the garment industry is the largest industry in Bangladesh, employing some 3.5 million workers, and responsible for most of the country's exports, it's unlikely that the state will intervene on the side of labor decisively.

But the garment workers haven't disappeared quietly. On August 14, for instance, 4,000 garment workers blockaded the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, leading to a standoff with the police that lasted four hours.

Their demands included the implementation of the government-mandated wage increase in August (rather than November which is when the minimum wage increase is supposed to take place), an eight-hour workday (workdays are currently between 11 and 15 hours long), and an end to intimidation by factory owners (who have routinely used thugs to attack the workers). The protesters also demanded the immediate release of Mantu Ghosh.

In an amazing show of solidarity, young workers, teachers, artists and writers formed a human chain at Shahbagh in Dhaka to demand that the garment workers receive a decent wage, and that the police stop the "capture and torture" of garment workers and union leaders.

In addition to coercion and repression, the state is also attempting to use divisions inside the labor movement--there are more than 60 unions in the textile industry--to its advantage. Most unions in the industry are illegal and are forced to operate in secret with shoestring budgets.

The new plan, it seems, is for Bangladesh to attempt to expand the base of workers that are represented by the government-backed unions. Labor Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain has announced plans to get trade unions into the ready-made-garment industry. This would be good news for one of the most thoroughly exploited labor forces in the world--were it not for the fact that the unions are being set up to help the bosses keep production running rather than to help workers advocate for their interests.

The government is hoping that the minimum wage increase will seem like a better option than indefinite protests by workers who are already feeling the pinch. Unions like the National Garment Workers Federation are doing the bosses' bidding in this instance by backing the 3,000 takas minimum wage and encouraging workers to return to their jobs.

This is a nakedly opportunist move: Increase the size of the unions in order to ensure the interests of the factory owners. After all, according to the government, it's because there are too few labor unions in the factories that the protests became violent--and not because of the sweatshop wages and conditions that persist in Bangladesh.

The strategy is clearly designed to squeeze out the more radical sections of the union movement by making the government-backed unions larger and more "representative"--thus completing the pincer action on radicals who are already facing prosecution from the courts.

At the same time, the state is also committed to isolating the international labor movement, which has set up a number of NGOs to help textile workers organize. Arguing that labor unrest has been the work of outside agitators, the Bangladeshi government has criminalized working in unions as a foreign national and begun closing down offices. Many of these NGOs were set up by unions in the West in order to win better wages for Bangladeshi workers and improve the lot of workers in other countries.

The attack on NGOs in Bangladesh must also be putting a squeeze on the resources that unions could rely on in order to expand their organizing. The NGO Affairs Bureau closed down some 334 NGOs in the last four months, alleging support of militancy in many cases.

Even though the protests have gotten smaller and attacks on the unions continue, it is clear that the current stalemate is unsustainable. Workers cannot survive on the low wages that are offered in Bangladesh, and as long as the textile industry exploits its workers ruthlessly, the Bangladeshi working class will continue to fight back.

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