Bangladesh suppresses factory workers’ protest

It’s hard to tell from the reports, but it seems as if the protests today were much smaller in Bangladesh. Factories were definitely open for much of the day, though several garment factories decided to cancel their night shifts. There were reports of several injuries.

The primary reason for this shift (smaller protests and resumed production) is the serious intimidation used by the police against the workers and the leadership of their organizations.  More than 4000 people were rounded up yesterday for protesting.  To give you a sense of how thorough the operation was to dismantle the barricades and ferret out every protester, there is an hour by hour account of the police skirmishes with the protesters here.  The bosses have been leaning heavily on the government in the past several days to ensure that the factories were operational.  The government was more than happy to go along, not least because the textile export market accounts for the lion’s share (80%) of the nation’s exports.

As I wrote yesterday, the government and the bosses have also tried to exploit divisions in the labor movement, attempting to isolate the leftist unions who are trying to push the protests forward.  The government is hoping that the minimum wage increase will seem like a better option than indefinite protests for workers who are already feeling the pinch (the textile workers are some of the worst paid in the world).  They’ve also added some concessions on food and housing subsidies.  As part of this move to isolate the left, the government has been waging a ridiculous media campaign in which it claims that the protests were small and only affected a few factories:

However, labour linister Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain termed Monday’s violence as an isolated incident, saying that trouble may have erupted at one or two factories out of the country’s 4,700 garments (RMG) factories.

The minister said they had settled the issue Sunday night after discussion with the union leaders who accepted the new salary-structure.

“Most of the garment workers did not know about the late night decision. I hope the situation will become normal from tomorrow (Tuesday),” the labour minister told reporters at a function at BGMEA head office.

The fact that the Minister of Labor made these remarks at a meeting of the textile factories gives you a sense of where his allegiances lie.  Unsurprisingly, the editors of the major newspapers are siding with the government and the bosses against the workers, citing their abhorrence at the “violence and the vandalism.”  What is certainly not meant is the violence of the police.

The other move that the government is making is attempting to pin the agitation on outside elements.  It announced yesterday that it was going to crack down on any foreign national that was involved with a labor union in Bangladesh, a clear signal to the NGOs who work on labor and human rights issues in Bangladesh that they are being watched.

The leftist unions are also beginning to push back against the centrist and government-backed unions.  At a press conference yesterday, the leaders of 13 unions denounced the tripartite talks (between some unions, management, and the government) that were held over the weekend as a “farce” and a “conspiracy,” since they were hastily convened and did not represent the interests of the workers as a whole.  Clearly, the emergency meeting was deigned to force a section of the unions to accept the wage compromise and help enforce labor discipline on the rest.

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 dollars (that’s by math converting Takas to Dollars).  That includes losses from lost work, damage to garments, and property damage.  And 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.

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