Bangladesh: advantage factory owners

I have been unable to find news of protests taking place today.  My guess is that the police repression has been pretty extensive and has rounded up a good chunk of the leadership of the more militant unions and allowed the more conservative unions to fill the vacuum.  At the same time, the attack on NGOs that is taking place 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.

In the meantime, the Bangladeshi press is awash with commentators who are trying to make sense of the crisis in the textile industry, and in typical Bangladeshi middle-class fashion, the baseline position is one that is unfriendly to the working class and horrified by the fact that workers have been fighting back.

Shahiduzzaman Khan, writing for the Financial Express of Bangladesh, has a rather confused take on the issue.  He argues that both labor and the bosses are to blame for the impasse, ignoring the fact that even though their short-term profits have been squeezed, the textile companies have made outrageous profits in the past several years.  He did, at a minimum, argue that the way to deal with genuine labor grievances was not police repression, but at the end of the day, it does seem that he thinks that the wage demands of the militant laborers are unreasonable.  This seems to be the most typical of the positions that the Bangladeshi newspapers have been able to put together:

But in the name of trade unionism, workers should not create unwarranted disturbances in the industrial belt. This will bring no good for them and for the country as well. The workers must use trade union as a true and effective bargaining platform. The country has witnessed ‘demise’ of many fledgling state-owned enterprises due to ‘excessive’ trade union activities. Many trade union leaders, in collaboration with a section of greedy officials, were willy-nilly responsible for great financial losses of such state entities. This is a reminder about how trade unionism could lead to negative growth. It is expected that the RMG workers, through constructive trade union activities, will realise their legitimate rights without hampering production.

The problem with such a position is that at almost every turn, workers are made to pay for the losses suffered by the bosses and never offered a share of the benefits.

Slightly better was the piece by Shahedul Khan, who while blaming “mischief makers” for taking advantage of the real grievances of workers, still manages to see that the lion’s share of the blame for the problem rests with the bosses and government:

There are some inherent difficulties in the RMG sector. The workers have not been made a stakeholder in the industry, and they have not been made to feel that they belong to it. The genuine problems of the factories are not shared with them. More so, the workers feel that they are the only ones being made to bear the rap of the economic meltdown, and their so-called reps in the wage board have nothing to do with the garment sector; they have every reason to think that they have been given a raw deal.

The owners are demanding a special force too for the factories. Security cannot be imposed by force but engendered through a harmonious worker-management rapport. Unfortunately, that is what is lacking.

Surely things have been difficult for the RMG sector. But unfortunately, the greatest brunt of the production cost is shifted on the workers. Why can’t we get the buyers to pay more for our products? We repeat what we have said in these columns before, the word “cheap” is a denigrating term when related to human beings; it dehumanises a person and reduces him or her to the state of a commodity. We can longer tolerate to see the blood and sweat of our workers made “cheap.”

The larger problem is a structural one for Bangladesh, since over-reliance on one industry (textiles) for almost the entire health of the economy means that the entire country can be held hostage to the profit margins of the factory owners.

Similarly, even those who deeply sympathize with the plight of workers, like Maswood Alam Khan who wrote a moving depiction of workers’ lives in Dhaka, cannot bring themselves to look past the “vandalism” that the workers have committed.  Apparently there is no connection between the daily violence that workers suffer and the violence that they are enacting.  The first part of his essay is worth reproducing, though:

Subarna, an 18-year old lady, works in a garment factory at Mohakhali in Dhaka city. She is married to a young man who also works in the same factory and has one cute child: a two-year old son. This three-member family lives in a tiny room of tin shed measuring 10 feet by 8.0 feet with a low ceiling at a slum area known as “Korail Bosti”, a huge area near Gulshan where thousands of garment workers along with thousands of other petty technicians, day laborers and low-paid servicemen live with their family members in inconceivable congestion — more than crammed like sardines — in a multitude of sheds so densely erected that it is hard for one to move with a handbag stuffed with shopping through any of the narrow pathways provided in between the sheds. These makeshift houses are constructed on government-owned land and rented out by some local musclemen who wield enormous strength to thwart any move from any quarter to question their right of renting the slum dwellings.

Subarna pays Tk. 1,500 for house rent and her other monthly expenses include Tk. 360 for three electric points—one light, one fan and one television and Tk. 200 for cosmetics and toiletries. Her daily expenses include Tk. 42 for 6 kg firewood, Tk. 64 for 2 kg rice, Tk. 20 for half liter cooking oil, Tk. 10 for onion and garlic, Tk. 12 for vegetables, Tk. 16 for potatoes and occasionally Tk. 50 for fish. One particular expense Subarna hates to defray is on cigarettes her husband smokes draining Tk. 25 every day from her skimpy budget. Every month Subarna and her husband earn approximately Tk. 14,000 and spend Tk. 11,000 for their own consumption and remit Tk. 2,000 to her ailing father living at Charfashion in Bhola.

Dr. M Azizur Rahman sees the problem in Bangladesh as structured by a problem: Bangladesh’s dependence on its exports means that it is disproportionately affected by the economic woes of the larger economies.  His solution is to export labor to the oil-rich Gulf countries or Southeast Asia and expand the volume of remittances coming into Bangladesh.  The problem with such a proposal is that not only is there intense competition for those remittances from countries like the Philippines and Nepal, but workers who travel abroad for work are also incredibly vulnerable.  Though, one of the consequences of globalization is that more and more Bangladeshis will be forced to seek work abroad.

Steve Davison of the Unite & Workers Uniting steering committee made the following interesting observation about the problems facing labor unions in Bangladesh:

The workers, virtually without leadership and national organisation, have spread the actions across the country, where copycat actions are taking place.

But the workers’ struggle is made harder because of the disarray in the trade union movement. Bangladesh has over 6,000 trade unions, which are in a constant struggle for survival and in competition with each other. Dozens of the garment unions have very small membership and most are linked to political parties and individual politicians.

Few collect union dues. Rather, they fight each other over funding from Europe and the US. There is no unity but rather a constant fight over money.

The Communist Party of Bangladesh organized a forum attended by several academics and economists who argued that the textile industry could make a profit AND pay the workers Tk 5000 a month.  And this piece by Zahid Hussain of the World Bank demonstrates that the textile industry could shoulder the burden of the higher wages without too much difficulty.

I did find this piece by Ret Marut quite useful.

For the time being, though, it appears to be the case that the advantage rest squarely with the bosses.  The problems facing garment workers will not disappear – another explosion is almost certain.

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