The machinations of Bangladeshi capital

In order to put the labor unrest to bed, the Bangladeshi government has been holding meetings with labor leaders and industry heads to make sure that the garment industry can get back to business as usual as quickly as possible.  This time, they met with the Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SKOP), the largest trade union federation in Bangladesh, to get all parties to agree to a joint front against labor agitation in the textile mills.

I can only speculate about the thinking here, but my guess is that SKOP has made a calculation based on the following: 1) a sense of competition from more radical trade unions in the garment industry, 2) accepting the logic of the bosses that the profits really are under attack and so workers have to get back to work, and/or 3) the presence of unions directly allied to the Awami League (Jatiyo Sramik League) within SKOP affecting the decision-making calculus.  I don’t know enough about the history of SKOP to conclude, but my guess is that it is a fairly conservative formation.  The bosses, on the other hand, are trying to find ways of spreading the costs of the minimum wage increase around internationally.  The government continues to have fanciful aspirations of impossible growth rates, fuelled primarily by textile exports.  All of this depends on keeping the peace in the garment industry.

Part of the reason that they have to get the larger unions to agree to hold the workers back is because the other unions in the garment industry are continuing to organize (as are bosses who are trying to roll back the minimum wages increases that were won in July).  I argued a few days ago that it looked like the repression was taking its toll on the more combative unions, and I still think that this is true, but the conditions in the garment industry are pretty miserable, and it’s unlikely that workers will continue to tolerate them much longer.

The workers in Bangladesh can at least have some confidence that they have magical supporters.  Harry Potter star Emma Watson recently toured the slums in Dhaka (where the majority of garment workers live) and was horrified by what she saw:

‘I had some preconceived ideas but nothing prepared me for the reality. It was upsetting to see the conditions in which these people live, but I was incredibly moved by their spirit and friendliness in spite of such apparent adversity,’ quoted her as saying.

‘Having seen the slums in Dhaka and the conditions in which these people live and work to produce ‘fast fashion’, I would say to those people that this is not the way we should be making clothes in the modern world,’ she added.

In another contradiction only capitalism could produce, ship-breakers in Bangladesh are caught between an industry that is poisoning them and an environmental movement that will cost them their livelihoods.  The Supreme Court of Bangladesh has had the foresight to impose strict environmental regulations on the highly toxic ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh, but has given no forethought to the effects that this will have on the workers there (the deaths of many of whom are the reasons that the environmentalists became interested in the issue in the first place).  The logical solution would be to give the workers jobs to clean up the toxic sites, but that doesn’t seem to have entered into the calculations.  The more likely consequence will be the shift of the ship-breaking industry to countries without environmental regulations (lose-lose).

The hazardous conditions are not unique to the ship-breaking industry; Bangladesh has notoriously high-rates of job-related deaths and workplace accidents:

In 2000, the International Labour Office estimated that each year 11,700 workers die in Bangladesh in work-related accidents. In 2005, it also estimated that another 28,600 die from diseases caused by the industries they work in and 8.9 million suffer from work-related injuries.

And because the Minimum Wage Board is now conducting a review of 12 other industries which haven’t had minimum wages adjusted in some cases for more than 20 years, it’s quite likely that there will be labor actions in other industries as well.  The pattern will likely resemble the one in the garment sector: labor action, modest minimum wage increase, split in the labor movement, repression.  We can only hope that the more combative unions learn the lessons of the garment industry strike and organize more effectively.

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