The President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Abdus Salam Murshedy announced this week that the garment bosses will pay their workers their annual bonuses before Eid this year. I’ve never celebrated Eid in Bangladesh, but if it is at all like it is in other parts of South Asia, it’s a very big deal – and not having money to spend for Eid presents and festivities is pretty demoralizing. During the strike that happened earlier this year, the bosses had threatened to delay the annual bonuses (partly to intimidate the workers, and partly to blame the workers for tighter profit margins).
Their announcement that they will pay out the bonuses now seems to imply two things. First, the bosses clearly need to get back to work and another round of protests is something that they cannot afford right now – paying bonuses now is a down payment on labor peace later. As it is, there is a fight within the mill owners about whether or not to pay the minimum wage increases, with the majority of the owners wanting to fight any wage increase at all. Second, the more moderate unions are clearly feeling the heat from the organizing efforts of the more radical unions and they need to be able to deliver some tangible gains for selling out the garment workers – the bosses have been tapped to help out in this way. There are already rumors circulating that the leftist unions are going to be organizing strikes and rallies after Eid.
At the same time, the BGMEA and the BKMEA have been making statements to the press about how Bangladeshi textiles are not getting a “fair price” on the market and that it is the international markets that should be asked to pay more. As I understand it, cotton prices have gone up this year (I’m sure the flood in Pakistan can’t be helping matters much) and there are chronic electricity shortages all throughout South Asia. That, in addition to the minimum wage increase means that the prices for which these commodities sell on the markets have to rise to keep up with the cost of the inputs. I haven’t found good data yet on the profits in the textile industry, yet, though I suspect that the bosses aren’t doing as badly as they’re claiming. After all, the BKMEA and BGMEA have been working overtime to get contracts in countries like China and Japan and have big plans for expansion. And, Murshedy’s speech was at a fancy Iftar party at a posh hotel in Dhaka. The hand-wringing seems to be for show (learned by watching Sheikh Hasina) – I don’t believe a word of Murshedy’s concern for his female workers:
“I request you (buyers) to provide fair prices for our products so that we can make our workers happy, and jointly build a secured society and economy,” … He said Bangladesh’s garment industry has reached this height following continuous support from the buyers. “Without your support 2.8 million under-privileged women could not come to the mainstream of the society.”
Interestingly (though I haven’t thought this aspect out fully), the minimum wage increase is going to have effects in the financial sector in Bangladesh. In order to limit inflation, the Bangladesh Bank has imposed severe limits on the ability of banks to borrow money. At the same time, a rampant increase in speculation on the stock market has meant that consumers are taking their money out of banks and investing in stocks. At the moment, the banks in Bangladesh are more than a little worried about where the money to pay for the minimum wage increase is going to come from.
The ship-breaking industry is under fire from the government, which has been pursuing environmental legislation to limit the kinds of toxic materials that are brought into Bangladesh on these abandoned ships. Bangladesh dismantles about 30% of the world’s abandoned ships and then uses the scrap metal in its steel mills (Bangladesh has no natural iron deposits and so it relies on recycling steel for its growing steel industry). The problem is that the toxicity of the chemicals in the ships has already been responsible for more than 400 deaths, as workers dismantle the ships by hand without proper equipment, protective gear, or training.
“It is a nightmare situation, as a consequence, with no formal appointments or arrangements for workers’ minimum needs, such as safe drinking water, food, toilet, living conditions. They toil amid blinding smoke and dust, suffocating fumes and burning heat, a virtual hell on earth, according to one witness. Workers rip apart the dumped vessels — from ocean liners to dirty freighters or monstrous tankers, weighing from a few thousand tons to as much as 60- 70 thousand, and costing millions of dollars to the importer — armed with just a blowtorch and other rudimentary tools.”
(Incidentally, the working conditions are no safer in the re-rolling steel mills). Workers went out on strike earlier this year when the government tried to impose a decree requiring all ships coming into Bangladesh to be certified as toxic-free, since that would mean essentially that they would be out of work. This week, the Department of the Environment imposed fines for the first time on a ship-breaking firm that dismantled a ship carrying toxic chemicals.