Bangladesh garment workers continue protests

Yesterday, the Bangladeshi government raised the minimum wage of Bangladeshi garment workers.  Today, garment workers are out in the streets protesting that the increase (80% … to about $1.40/day — well below the international poverty line) is not enough to meet basic minimum needs.

The image is taken from the AFP article on Bangladesh.

The workers have set up barricades, roadblocks, set fire to cars, and marched through the streets.  The mainstream press is predictably up in arms over the actions of the workers (calling it in most instances a “rampage”).  They’ve been 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).  Textiles are one of Bangladesh’s largest exports and as an industry, textile factories employee more than 3.5 million workers in Bangladesh.  This accounts for the vacillating position of the Awami League which has to rely 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.

So, you then have the scripted shedding of crocodile tears and hand-wringing from the Labour Minister Khandaker Mosharaff Hossain who said that this pay increase was the best that the government could manage.  The Awami League tried to position itself as the populist friend of the working class, but is so closely tied to the interest of big business that it could only offer the workers a pittance.  This is a particularly dangerous game for the AL as it is also conducting an all-out assault against its parliamentary rivals the BNP and Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami.

Protests were broken up with the use of tear gas and batons.  There are reports of several injuries.

Part of the reason for the increased militancy of the Bangladeshi textile workers is the high cost of basic commodities and the complete lack of reliable electricity.

There is a split inside of the Bangladeshi labor movement, with the government backed unions trying to hold back the protests and demands for greater wages, but the recent protests seem to indicate that their ability to exert any serious control over the workers may be slipping.  The government backed unions were a part of the negotiations to arrive at the new minimum wage levels — the leftist unions were completely iced out of the discussion.  The government has also been waging a concerted attack on some of the most militant unions, hoping to intimidate those that were arguing for the most aggressive demands


Tariq Ali on Islamophobia

A fantastic presentation by Tariq Ali on the perils of Islamophobia from the Marxism Festival earlier this year:

It’s particularly timely and important given the debate about the veil in France, the building of mosques in the US, and the continued use of fear about Islam in the service of empire.

Two new translations of Qurratulain Hyder’s works

First, Scott Esposito reviews the new translation of Fireflies in the Mist (just recently released by New Directions):

If Hyder is still obscure to the English-language audience it is probably due to a combination of subject matter and style. Hyder defied conventional ideas of what post-colonial fiction looked like.  Moreover, her books are uncompromisingly steeped in the politics of the subcontinent. Their proliferation of names, dates and places can be difficult for an uninitiated reader to assimilate, particularly in Hyder’s clipped modernist prose.

Of course, great literature transcends national boundaries, and bedevilling place-names and historical events need not impede the enjoyment of great books. This is a fact that is evident in Hyder’s acknowledged masterpiece, 1959’s River of Fire, which has been acclaimed as the greatest Urdu novel of the 20th century. A quasi-epic that covers 2,000 years of history and mythology in an attempt to tell the story of India and its major religions, it has been called Urdu’s own One Hundred Years of Solitude. When New Directions published the first English edition of River of Fire in 1999, it received praise from such stately periodicals as the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books.

Also out, though I can’t find the publisher’s page about it, is The Exiles.

Just ordered both — and very excited, despite Esposito’s negative review.

Power loom workers win their demands!

This email was sent out by Farooq Tariq earlier today:

This is to inform you that Faisalabad power looms workers strike is over. It ended with a complete victory. The Commissioner of Faisalabad Mr. Tahir Hussain announced at the rally that all demands of the workers will be met. He said that we have received the notification of 17 percent rates increase for all the workers late last night and that will be implemented in its full spirit. The arrested four leaders case will be withdrawn after an initial inquiry in consultation with Labour Qaumi Movement leadership.
This was after over 25000 workers marched to the city center and picketed the office of the Commissioner. Today, workers marched over 20 kilometers by foot and it was a total peaceful manifestation. We had made it clear earlier to all the workers as well that any one involved in any violent incident will be kicked out of the organisation. The bosses were too depressed to do any provocation. Workers marched despite a heavy rain. At one point, the police tried to block the workers marching towards the commissioner office. Workers broke the blockade and went on marching towards the office. All roads leading to Commissioner officer were blocked by police and every where there were countless heads of power looms workers.
It was one of the largest gathering that labour Qaumi Movement had mobilized in support of the strike.
Here in Lahore, National Trade Union Federation had organised a protest camp in front of Punjab Assembly building where scores of trade union activists turned up to show solidarity with the striking workers. Here, I was asked by LQM leadership to speak to the workers in Faisalabad by telephone. I could hear the thunder strom  slogans of the workers in favour of Labour Party Pakistan and National Trade Union Federation. Yousaf Baluch, chairperson NTUF have thanked all the national and international support for the strike that paved the way for a complete victory of the working class in Faisalabad. over 250,000 workers rates will be increased by 17 percent as a result of this 9 days strike. Four workers leaders are in jail on false charges of violence.
Thank you all, here is at one good news from Pakistan.
Farooq Tariq
Labour Party Pakistan

Kashmir under Indian rule

At this point, it is almost becoming ludicrous to keep up with the number of curfews and restrictions that have been placed on Kashmir.  Every day, it seems, the security forces find some pretext or another to set up roadblocks and round up young men.  This time, in real Orwellian fashion, the restrictions are being justified to clamp down on “anti-social elements” inside of Kashmir, as though the Indian military were throwing cocktail parties. Though yesterday, the Indian media was repeating the mendacious claim that Kashmir had “returned to normalcy” – this is only true if you believe that normalcy means permanent military occupation, road closures, school closures, political detentions, unemployment, mass graves and the like.  Only the hard-hearted can find this comforting. 

In response to the Indian government’s crackdown on media coverage of Kashmir, the young people have turned to social networking sites (Facebook and Orkut) in order to let the world know what is going on in Kashmir.  But, this will not be seen as it was in Iran as a source of creativity for the young people in the “Green Revolution” – India is the darling of the west, Iran is the bête noire.  Incidentally, the Indian government seems to have learnt from the experience in Iran: India has begun harassing Kashmiri facebook users

The Government of India has established a commission to conduct a formal inquiry into the military and police excesses in India, but this is guaranteed to do two things: 1) find a few bad apples to blame in order to salvage the larger project of permanent occupation, and 2) avoid talking about the systematic crimes committed by the Indian forces for the last 60 years.  The lack of any independent presence on the commission is also a guarantee that it will not be taken seriously by Kashmiris. 

The United Nations is now speaking up about the humanitarian abuses taking place in Kashmir, specifically asking for dialogue between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.  The problem with this approach has always been that it turns Kashmir into a political football between the various opportunist parties in both India and Pakistan.   Kashmiri demands for political autonomy and independence have always fallen on deaf ears.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to India was a total farce, as he bent over backwards to try and forge a “special relationship” with India.  This was news to India, as Sonia Gandhi outright snubbed the Brit and refused to see him.  At the same time, Cameron wasted no opportunity to both avoid talking about Indian humanitarian abuses in Kashmir and to toe the Indian line on Pakistan.  After the WikiLeaks non-revelation of Pakistani complicity in supporting Islamist groups and the Taliban on the border with Afghanistan, Indian politicians have been foaming at the mouth to try and drive a wedge between Pakistan and the US.  Cameron’s speech and visit only served to show how far the UK has fallen in international prestige.  Incidentally, the UK and India were able to agree on an arms sale: 57 Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer aircraft.  This will only make the lives of ordinary Kashmiris worse.

Pakistan after the WikiLeak

The wikileaks report has become something of a problem for the Pakistani military and intelligence, since one of the main things it points out is the extensive connections that exist between the ISI and the Taliban. This was always an open secret, but it now seems to mean that the rift between the civilian bureaucracy (which wants to do whatever the US wants) and the military (which has a long-term objective about “strategic depth”) will become wider and deeper. The Pakistani government was forced to extend General Kayani’s tenure another three years, something it did not want to do, which seems to indicate that the balance of power is definitely tilted in that direction. It’s also pretty amusing to watch the civilian bureaucracy scramble to keep up its PR game; the American establishment, too.

What’s still unclear is whether this rift will persist uneasily and why the US allows Pakistan to have it both ways (helping the Taliban and attacking them). There may be a difference of opinion in the US, too: the White House tried to sound tough on Pakistan, while the American Armed Forces Service had generous things to say. At a minimum it suggests that the US does not have a strategy for Afghanistan independent of Pakistan and that it is not in any position to force Pakistan’s hand. It especially needs Pakistan for the land routes which are used to replenish NATO supplies. The argument that was used last year (that Pakistan goes after the TeT and not the Afghan Taliban) seems to have been eliminated from the establishment speak as are threats of unilateral strikes along the Durrand Line.

But it does seem to be pretty straightforward that American designs on Afghanistan (permanent power projection in Asia) are at odds with Pakistani designs on Afghanistan (reliable regional ally and “strategic depth” in the event of a war with India) and that at the end of the day, Pakistan is forced to hedge its bets. Pakistan cannot be compelled to give up its reliance on the Taliban without a complete reorganization of Asian geopolitics and that means the nearly impossible combination of a defanged India and an isolationist America. Here’s how David P Goldman puts it:

“The government’s desultory campaign against pro-Taliban elements on the Afghan border comes down to Punjabis killing Pashtuns. To drive the Taliban in earnest out of the Pashto-speaking frontier in the Waziristan tribal areas would risk tearing the country apart. It is also the case that Pakistan wants the Taliban as a bulwark against India. But it is misleading to separate Islamabad’s foreign policy objectives from the requirements of domestic cohesion, since irredentist agitation against India is part of the glue that holds together a fractious and fanatical collection of tribes.”

Drone attacks continue to be deadly, while their “effectiveness” is still dubious.

Holbrooke and Mullen had to go to India to assure them that they had things in check with Pakistan.

The textile workers’ strike in Faisalabad entered its seventh day. Here’s an inspiring report from Farooq Tariq of the Labour Party of Pakistan:

“The strike of power looms workers in Faisalabad enters the seventh day. All factories are closed. Today on 27th July, women workers demonstrated in front of the district administration office. They were demanding an end of police harassment and raids at their homes. They also spoke against the open exhibition of arms by the gangsters in the workers localities. The top police officials had to agree to the demands of the women and children who had refused to leave the place before their demands are met. Over 100,000 workers are on strike since 20th July and over 20,000 factories are closed completely.”

The strike is primarily over pay, as textile workers make less than $70 a month. If the Pakistani textile workers could link up with their Bangladeshi counterparts who are also out on strike, it could change the face of global fashion.

Additionally, unions are declaring a victory in the long fight against Coca-Cola.

Meanwhile, the debate about American aid to Pakistan is likely to heat up after the WikiLeaks announcement. The current aid package (which includes the construction of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, or Pakistani maquiladoras) is stalled in Congress.

Pakistan news

The US announced that it is placing financial sanctions on the Haqqani network in order to isolate them and force some kind of endgame.  That this has taken so long should be some index of Pakistan’s reluctance to go after the Haqqani group, which it sees as an ally in the regional game.

The New York Times reports about the persistent double-bind that the American strategy has produced, they have to rely on Pakistan for intelligence and ground support but cannot compel Pakistan to give up on its long-term objectives about regional priorities (which induces the Pakistani state to rely on groups like the Haqqani network).  Hence, the American military establishment is ambivalent about Kayani’s tenure:

General Kayani has led the Pakistani military since November 2007, when Gen. Pervez Musharraf stepped aside. He has been a focal point for the Obama administration, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who has paid regular visits to General Kayani to encourage him to stop the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban from crossing into Afghanistan and fighting American forces.

The Americans have praised General Kayani for his army’s campaigns against the Pakistani Taliban but, behind the scenes, the Americans have been disappointed with the general’s failure to disown the Afghan Taliban, who benefit from sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The United States pays the Pakistani military an estimated $1 billion a year to fight the militants. The American military has also depended on General Kayani’s quiet permission for the C.I.A. drones striking at Qaeda and Taliban operatives in the tribal areas, and has been appreciative of his efforts to ensure transit on the supply route to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan that runs through Pakistan.

Count on Pakistan’s civilian bureaucracy to mess this up again (giving a military leader a green light has always meant that military rule is around the corner).

Pakistani jets are pounding other parts of the country, though there seem to be a variety of figures for the consequences:

ایک اعلی سکیورٹی فورسز کے اہلکار نے بی بی سی کو بتایا کہ جمعہ کو اورکزئی ایجنسی کی تحصیل غلجو کے علاقے قمر گھٹ میں سکیورٹی فورسز کی بھر پور کارروائی کے بعد طالبان جنگجوں بھاگنے پر مجبور ہو رہے ہیں۔ انہوں نے کہا کہ سخت مزاحمت کے بعد سکیورٹی فورسز کے اہلکاروں نے افغان ٹاپ نامی پہاڑی سلسلے پر قبضہ کر لیا ہے۔ جس کے بعد سے غلجو جانے والی شاہراہ پر طالبان جنگجوں کا قبضہ ختم ہوگیا ہے اور شاہراہ کو ہرقسم کے ٹریفک کے لئے کھول دیاگیا ہے۔

Still, the US is looking at alternatives and hedging its bets.  There is a section of the establishment that is pursuing the course of brokering a deal between Karzai and the Taliban in order to start getting out of the country by 2011.  Richard Holbrooke went so far as to say that the war was unwinnable without Pakistan.  This also seems to be the message coming out of the Kabul conference.  Karzai has been moving closer to Pakistan in recent months, and this will have the effect of isolating him from his regional allies in the Northern Alliance.

Incidentally, the US is worried about militant attacks against India derailing the negotiations that are currently underway.  This will only happen if it is in the interests of the Pakistani establishment – it’s unlikely that LeT does anything that the ISI doesn’t know about.  So, American foreign policy leaders play this hot-and-cold game, praising Pakistan in one sentence and denouncing them in the next.  This of course ends up encouraging the Hindu right in India to a lot of chest thumping about talking to terrorists (which might indicate that the US is worried about the wrong kind of militants derailing the peace process).  The talks, by all accounts, are going very badly.

Meanwhile, the new JF-17 aircrafts co-produced by China and Pakistan FOR EXPORT ONLY are hot off the assembly line.  (Be sure to check out the graphic on the Aviation Week page).   Pakistan hopes to use the sale of these jets to modernize its own air force (rendering the purchase of these jets obsolete).

In Faisalabad, almost the entirety of the textile industry has been shut down by a coordinated strike in the factories.  Some 100,000 workers are out on strike, which has prompted the bosses to shut down operations (and laughably accuse the workers of terrorism).  At least part of the reason for the new wave of labor militancy in Pakistan is the rising cost of living, with basic goods like sugar becoming outside of the reach of ordinary workers.