Today was the fourth day of protests in Bangladesh after the announcement of a wage increase by the Awami League government. The police have become more aggressive and the workers have grown more combative. Most news coverage doesn’t give you a sense of the size of the protests, but the kinds of police response seem to indicate that the fight is definitely pitched. 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). There are reports of serious clashes between workers and police in Ashulia and Naryanganj, two areas with high textile mill density, including the takeover of a major highway. Several factories have announced “holidays” rather than face the ire of angry workers.
You can get some sense of the composition of the protests by watching this piece from ITN News:
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’s Narayanganj division and affiliated with the CPB-led Garment Trade Union Centre , was rounded up on Friday and detained. 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 their leadership. This has also become a new point of organizing for the left in Bangladesh (organized under the Ganatatrik Bam Morcha) who have 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), but the result of some pretty painstaking work by the leftist unions.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufactures & Exporters Association (BKMEA) have both said that they will not raise wages higher than the Tk 3000 level mandated by the government and that it is the government’s responsibility to enforce discipline on the workers. A few days ago, though, the BKMEA was forced to renegotiate with the unions when a barricade set up in Narayanganj threatened to shut down operations completely. Now, the bosses seem to be digging their heels in. In typical arrogance, mill owners have claimed that the protests are the work of outside agitators or dim-witted workers who don’t understand the complexity of international trade.
Part of the way that the bosses are going to suppress the protests is by cutting a deal with the government-backed unions. There are already reports that such discussions are underway, though the details are still hard to come by. On Sunday, there was a meeting organized by the Minister of Labor Khandker Mosharaff Hossain, in which some of the labor unions have already given into the bosses demand to stop the protests and accept the Tk 3000 a month minimum wage.
As BDNews reports,
The RMG labourers were represented by 42 labour organisations including Shirin Akhter, president of Bangladesh Jatiya Sramik Jote, the labour front of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, also president of Karmojibi Nari, Amirul Haque Amin, convenor of the National Garment Workers Federation and Nazma Akhter, head of the Awaaz Foundation, a non-governmental organisation.
The article itself is pretty confusing, since it seems to suggest that these unions are both acceding to the government established minimum wages and protesting them, but it is likely that some wing of the labor movement has either been bought off or intimidated into submission. The rhetoric from the government and the bosses was filled with venom about going after those who “instigate violence” and work with “irresponsible trade unions.”
Amirul Haque Amin of the National Garment Workers Federation at any rate has come out in support of the new minimum wage and for ending the protests. This is pretty disheartening, especially considering the principled basis on which the NGWF was started. At the same time, this was not unexpected, since the government’s strategy all along was to include a section of the more pliable unions in their negotiations with the bosses so that there could be some guarantees of labor discipline after the minimum wage announcement. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is now playing the janus-faced role that she was born to play — last year she attempted to win votes by appealing to the genuine grievances that workers had about low wages; now she says that there will be zero-tolerance for protesters. Certain labor unions are parroting her moves.
What is beginning to emerge in the labor movement is a pretty decisive split between the left unions (generally smaller but whose ideas are getting a larger hearing) and the larger unions (connected to the major political parties or out-and-out run by the government). This has left most establishment types hopelessly confused about the working class in Bangladesh and its leadership. The argument made by the Awami League leadership that the split is being fomented by the Bangladeshi National Party and Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami is pretty laughable. The BNP isn’t interested in protests or in raising the minimum wage, it’s just interested in embarrassing the Awami League. And it will use the crisis opportunistically to exact as much political mileage as it can. It’s also pretty hard to tell who has the ear of the textile workers since many of the factories are still unorganized and the levels of unionization are still quite low because of Bangladesh’s anti-union laws. It’s unclear exactly how the split will develop and whether the left will be able to capitalize on its growing audience, but they have definitely tapped into a very exciting kind of labor militancy that is causing a real crisis for Bangladeshi capitalism.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that women have played an enormous role in these protests — one of the effects of the rapid development of a textile industry in Bangladesh has been the employment and empowerment of thousands of women.