Textile strike rocks Bangladesh

My piece in Socialist Worker on the garment workers’ strike in Bangladesh:

TEXTILE STRIKE ROCKS BANGLADESH

Snehal Shingavi analyzes the battle shaking Bangladesh’s textile industry–and the international manufacturers who set up shop there to take advantage of low wages.

August 24, 2010

Striking garment workers who gathered to protest low wages flee police firing tear gas and rubber bullets

Striking garment workers who gathered to protest low wages flee police firing tear gas and rubber bullets

OVER THE past month, Bangladesh’s textile industry–one of the most exploitative in the world–has been rocked by strikes and protests.

The level of repression used against the Bangladeshi textile workers, largely women, exposes the dark underbelly of globalization in Asia. Textile manufacturers have been flooding into the country in the last several years as workers in other countries, especially China, have successfully fought for higher wages. When the textile bosses came to Bangladesh, the minimum wage was less than 10 cents an hour.

The strikes began in mid-July when a massive general strike in the ready-made-garment industry shut down the capital city of Dhaka.

The immediate reason for the strike was the increase in the cost of basic commodities in Bangladesh, especially foodstuffs, which have quickly outstripped wages that haven’t risen since 2006, the last time that textile workers went on strike. Textile workers get 1,887 takas a month (roughly $25)–most economists put the basic income needed to survive in Dhaka at around 8,000 takas.

Even though the police attacked the strike and forced the workers back to work, the protests scared the ruling Awami League party into offering a minimum wage increase to 3,000 takas a month (roughly $42) at the end of July.

The workers had originally demanded an increase to 5,000 takas, and in disgust with the meager increase, the protests continued. The workers set up barricades and roadblocks, set fire to cars, and marched through the streets.

The mainstream press was predictably up in arms over the actions of the workers (calling it, in most instances, a “rampage”). They were less inclined to notice the excesses of the Bangladeshi police or of the bosses, who were lobbying to resist even this pay increase another 4 months, giving some of them enough time to move or threaten to move.

The textile mill owners shut down some 250 factories and asked for police support to crush the strike. Some 100 workers were injured in the clashes that followed, in which police used tear gas and water cannons against the strikers. There were also some fairly serious attacks on children who live in the area.

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. The workers were eventually forced back to work with some vague assurances that wage increases would be forthcoming sometime in the next three months.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufactures & Exporters Association (BKMEA)–the two main organizations of textile mill owners–have both said that they will not raise wages higher than the 3000-takas level mandated by the government, and that it is the government’s responsibility to enforce discipline on the workers.

More than 4,000 workers were arrested, and others were later rounded up after the police used television footage to identify strike “leaders.” 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 (CPB)’s Narayanganj division and affiliated with the CPB-led Garment Trade Union Center, was detained earlier in the month. 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 the workers’ leadership. This has also become a new point of organizing for the left in Bangladesh, organized in the Ganatantrik Bam Morcha, which has 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. In reality, they are the result of some painstaking work by the leftist unions.

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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. That includes losses from lost work, damage to garments and property damage. 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.

This is why the attacks on the labor unions are so important for the state and for business in Bangladesh. It gives them some wiggle room in a tense economic situation. Part of the way police are making their case against the unions in Bangladesh is by torturing labor activists into making confessions against their respective organizations. As the New York Times reported:

[L]abor and human rights advocacy groups said at least one worker has told his colleagues that he was tortured into giving false evidence against himself and other labor leaders before he escaped from custody. Advocates also said that they were worried about the safety of people arrested in recent days.

The Bangladeshi High Court had to order the police not to torture labor leader Mantu Ghosh, exposing what are certainly ordinary practices for the Bangladeshi police. This, of course, should make one wonder about the fate of the thousands of other laborers who were arrested. Home Minister Advocate Sahara Khatun has already said that she will punish everyone involved in the protests that took place in mid-August.

The garment industry is clearly Bangladesh’s most important export industry, accounting for some 80 percent of the country’s total exports, and the largest, employing some 3.5 million workers. That means that the fortunes of the Bangladeshi economy are intimately tied to this one industry.

In fact, it was the structural dependency of Bangladesh that prompted Bangladesh to try to attract textile manufacturers to the country in the first place. (The other way that Bangladesh makes a dent in its large trade imbalance is from its other major export: workers it sends to work overseas.) Textiles only account for about 5 percent of the economy, but they play a very large role in driving Bangladesh’s growth.

As a result, no matter which party is in power, it needs to woo the garment industry. This accounts for the vacillating position of the ruling Awami League, which relies on workers for votes, but has to do the bidding of the factory owners if it wants to keep the economy afloat in the short term.

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THE GLOBAL economic downturn has put a squeeze on the profits of the textile industry in Bangladesh, and it is looking to survive the problem by squeezing wages. As the garment industry is the largest industry in Bangladesh, employing some 3.5 million workers, and responsible for most of the country’s exports, it’s unlikely that the state will intervene on the side of labor decisively.

But the garment workers haven’t disappeared quietly. On August 14, for instance, 4,000 garment workers blockaded the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, leading to a standoff with the police that lasted four hours.

Their demands included the implementation of the government-mandated wage increase in August (rather than November which is when the minimum wage increase is supposed to take place), an eight-hour workday (workdays are currently between 11 and 15 hours long), and an end to intimidation by factory owners (who have routinely used thugs to attack the workers). The protesters also demanded the immediate release of Mantu Ghosh.

In an amazing show of solidarity, young workers, teachers, artists and writers formed a human chain at Shahbagh in Dhaka to demand that the garment workers receive a decent wage, and that the police stop the “capture and torture” of garment workers and union leaders.

In addition to coercion and repression, the state is also attempting to use divisions inside the labor movement–there are more than 60 unions in the textile industry–to its advantage. Most unions in the industry are illegal and are forced to operate in secret with shoestring budgets.

The new plan, it seems, is for Bangladesh to attempt to expand the base of workers that are represented by the government-backed unions. Labor Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain has announced plans to get trade unions into the ready-made-garment industry. This would be good news for one of the most thoroughly exploited labor forces in the world–were it not for the fact that the unions are being set up to help the bosses keep production running rather than to help workers advocate for their interests.

The government is hoping that the minimum wage increase will seem like a better option than indefinite protests by workers who are already feeling the pinch. Unions like the National Garment Workers Federation are doing the bosses’ bidding in this instance by backing the 3,000 takas minimum wage and encouraging workers to return to their jobs.

This is a nakedly opportunist move: Increase the size of the unions in order to ensure the interests of the factory owners. After all, according to the government, it’s because there are too few labor unions in the factories that the protests became violent–and not because of the sweatshop wages and conditions that persist in Bangladesh.

The strategy is clearly designed to squeeze out the more radical sections of the union movement by making the government-backed unions larger and more “representative”–thus completing the pincer action on radicals who are already facing prosecution from the courts.

At the same time, the state is also committed to isolating the international labor movement, which has set up a number of NGOs to help textile workers organize. Arguing that labor unrest has been the work of outside agitators, the Bangladeshi government has criminalized working in unions as a foreign national and begun closing down offices. Many of these NGOs were set up by unions in the West in order to win better wages for Bangladeshi workers and improve the lot of workers in other countries.

The attack on NGOs 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.

Even though the protests have gotten smaller and attacks on the unions continue, it is clear that the current stalemate is unsustainable. Workers cannot survive on the low wages that are offered in Bangladesh, and as long as the textile industry exploits its workers ruthlessly, the Bangladeshi working class will continue to fight back.

Bangladeshi textile industry tries to rollback minimum wage

Even though the government of Bangladesh was able to announce an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers (to 3,000 Takas a month), they may find it difficult to implement it in time for it to make a difference.  The primary reason that the minimum wage increase was forced through was in response to the increasing combativity of the Bangladeshi textile workers who held strikes through July and early August.  The rhetoric of the labor minister and the minister for industry has been about “law and order” issues in the garment factories.  Sheikh Hasina is allowed to make her populist hand-wringing pleas about the poverty that the garment workers face, but the majority of the Awami League is allied to the factory owners and is enforcing their will.

So now the government faces two problems.  It needed the minimum wage increase in order to ensure peace in the textile factories, but those increases aren’t going to happen until November which means that going back to work will be a bitter pill to swallow for most workers who went out on strike.  In order to move things along, there have been meetings between the chief organization of the garment factory owners (the BGMEA and the BKMEA) and the state to try to get them to implement the wage increases earlier, but this is likely to fall on deaf ears.  Already one section of the factory owners is challenging the minimum wage increase as an unfair burden and wants to overturn the law.  The Bangladeshi Financial Express published an editorial piece challenging the logic of the minimum wage increases.

“According to analysts the annual bill for the increased [w]ages will be in the region of $ 1.0 billion taking up roughly 12% of the total export number of $ 12 billion. Even though the disorganised but massive industry hasn’t quite got it right in projecting its’ ducks in a row there is no secret that there are other increased costs that it is having to take on in the form of infrastructure, power, delivery delays and the spiralling cost of raw materials. The squeeze from the other side is the incessant pressure to be compliant-that comes at a cost and reduction in the prices. While the pressure for reduced prices is nothing new matters have been exacerbated by the decline in demand fuelled by the economic downturn in the developed countries.”

The bosses want the state to pick up more of the tab by increasing the amount of government subsidies given to textile workers (health care, housing, etc.).

Another section of the factory owners is projecting an air of liberal confidence, arguing that the minimum wage increase will have no effect on the industry since all of the costs can be defrayed onto buyers.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh is still getting quite a bit of international attention for its garment industry woes, as the EU and the AFL-CIO have been attempting to pressure the government to release striking workers from prison and raise the minimum wage sooner.

There have been no reports in the news about what the labor movement is doing right now, though I suspect that there is quite a bit of regrouping to handle the repression that they have faced and new discussions about strategies that are going on.  The real question will be how soon the textile workers unions can organize a fight back (it took four years for them to organize this round of action after recovering from the repression that they faced in 2006 from other strike actions).

In the meantime, the general economic woes in Bangladesh are finding an expression in cinema.  I don’t know much about Biplob’s work, but I think that I’m going to see if the library carries any of his films and check them out.

Bangladesh enters into gap left by Pakistani textile manufacturers

Bangladesh-based textile manufacturers are looking to take advantage of the flooding in Pakistan to capture orders that the Pakistani manufacturers cannot fulfill, but it is already facing problems.  The infrastructure in Bangladesh (especially the electricity grid and the ports) is not set up for massive expansion in goods delivery. Pakistani manufacturers face the double whammy of having to deal with the floods and the destruction of the cotton crop this year, making it all but impossible for them to meet the demands of the international market.  Just a few weeks ago, both Pakistan and Bangladesh were rocked by massive textile workers’ strikes – it remains to be seen what effect this shift will have on the labor movements in both countries.  Ripples will also be felt in the textile industries in Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where the impact of Bangladesh’s low wages are felt acutely.

At the same time, now that the workers are back to work in Bangladesh and the more radical unions have been pretty thoroughly routed, the bosses are back to the old tricks.  343 factory owners have submitted a petition against the minimum wage hike that was passed in late July (but won’t take effect until November).  The Minimum Wage Board, it seems, is legally obligated to conduct more hearings on the issue because of the number of objections filed by manufacturers.  The BGMEA, one of the main representatives of the textile manufacturers at the Minimum Wage Board, refused to rein in the dissident factory owners, suggesting that it would be more than happy to let the minimum wage fall backwards.  The more moderate unions, though, are digging their heels in over the minimum wage increase.

The coercive attacks against Bangladeshi workers continue: many labor leaders are in hiding, several have been arrested, and more than 5000 workers have been fired.  Chillingly, the police are raiding the homes of labor activists nightly and harassing the slums in which most textile workers live.  Activists in the United States organized a protest outside of the Bangladeshi embassy in Washington, DC.  They are demanding a release of the labor leaders who were arrested after the textile workers strikes.  I was personally excited to see that the United Students Against Sweatshops, a group that I was in a decade ago, is still active.  Oh, and the EU was disappointed that the minimum wage increase hasn’t been implemented, though I’m not sure that this will mean much.

Political economy in Bangladesh

A major fight has been going on in Bangladesh with respect to the Awami League’s return to power.  The Constitution is being amended, the opposition is under legal attack, the military is being restructured, and old criminal charges are being revived.  For instance, Sheikh Hasina has been playing up the anniversary of her father’s (Sheikh Mujibur Rehman) death — celebrated as national mourning day — in order to win political advantage against the Bangladesh National Party.  Her father’s killers were protected by a 1975 ruling which prevented their prosecution.  When she won the elections in 1996, she overturned that law and brought charges against 12 of them — all of whom were later hanged.  A few of the people involved in her father’s assassination are still living abroad.  She also used the occasion to announce the platitudinous campaign to create a “Bangladesh free of hunger and poverty.”

At the same time, the Awami League is pursuing criminal charges against sections of the Jamaat-e-Islami that collaborated with Pakistan in the 1971 war.  There is widespread support for these trials, since no charges have been brought up for the crimes committed (thousands were killed, reports of rape were astronomical).  Here’s how Asia Times puts the trials:

But the government’s focus on razakars – internal collaborators who led, assisted and committed crimes in conjunction with the Pakistani administration then in control of the country – has whipped up controversy in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. The Awami League government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which was elected in a landslide in 2008 in part on promises of a trial, says it has evidence proving the involvement of senior Jamaat members in the 1971 atrocities. Critics, however, say the tribunal is being used to settle domestic political disputes and runs the risk of unleashing social chaos.

Don Beachler, an associate professor of political science at NewYork’s Ithaca College, said the government has set up the tribunal in part to tar Jamaat-e-Islami as allies of the Pakistani army and “enemies of the Bangladeshi people”. The fact that Jamaat ruled in coalition with the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party – a key rival of the Awami League – from 2001 to 2006 has only provided an “extra motive” to pursue the Islamist movement, he added.

Behind all of this, of course, is the long-standing conflict between the three major players in Bangladeshi politics: the Awami League, the Bangladesh National Party, and the Bangladeshi military.  In fact, the recent Supreme Court ruling about secularism in the constitution and the new laws passed against fatwas have to been seen in this context: the Awami League is using its political power to change the terrain legally enough to prevent a repetition of its previous missteps (which allowed its competitors into power).  At the same time, the military and the BNP have a love-hate relationship which was most acutely demonstrated when they split from one another in the 1990s after their brief collaboration to oust the AL from power.  This is also part of the reason that both the AL and the BNP are suspicious of the military and have prevented it from expanding and growing overmuch.

At the same time, the BNP is in the midst of a crisis of its own with several factions attempting to break away from Khaleda Zia’s leadership.  The BNP is going to try to push an aggressive and activist line against the AL, but this will be made more difficult if it doesn’t have reliable cadres that it can count on.

The government of Bangladesh is pursuing an aggressive strategy of recruiting Foreign Direct Investment, marketing its very low labor costs as the nation’s most attractive feature, but it is coming up against some serious problems.  The Bangladeshi Export Prootion Bureau (EPB) is already trying to set export targets that would be up from the previous year by a fanciful 15%.  They are hoping that most of that will come from a recovery in the global market will allow them to sell more ready-made garments, but this depends on trends that are clearly outside of the control of the small nation.

For instance, there are already rumblings coming from the economic pundits in Bangladesh that the nation has to diversify its exports, since the over-reliance on the garment industry means that the nation is particularly vulnerable to the ups and downs of the global market.  But the kinds of resources that would require are still years away for Bangladesh.

First of all, the nation’s weak infrastructure poses a problem for companies looking to take advantage of Bangladesh’s cheap wages.  And, the lack of developed land suitable for corporate investment has meant that the country had to lose out on several lucrative bids this year.  So, most companies want to set up shop in either Dhaka or Chittagong, but land is not available (it is plentiful in places that most corporations do not want to go).

Secondly, the combativity of the working class even in particularly adverse circumstances means that the labor costs won’t remain low indefinitely.  There are even signs that the pro-business intelligentsia in Bangladesh recognizes the problems that perpetually low wages will pose for business in the long-term.

Because the garment industry is so large, both parties actually have the support of some section of the garment workers (and need that support in order to win elections).  At the same time, industrialists all over the country rely on both parties to do their bidding.  I can’t find a good elections return map that I could set on top of a map of the garment factories, but you can tell from the election returns that the support of both parties in the major cities is pretty substantial.

Moreover, the garment industry is clearly Bangladesh’s most important export industry, accounting for some 80% of the countries total exports.  That means that the fortunes of the Bangladeshi economy are intimately tied to this one industry.  In fact, it was the structural dependency of Bangladesh (its large trade deficit) that prompted Bangladesh to try an attract textile manufacturers to the country in the first place.  (The other way that Bangladesh makes a dent in its large trade imbalance is from its other major export: workers it sends to work overseas).  It only accounts for about 5% of the economy (textiles are a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the GDP of Bangladesh is $240 billion) but it plays a very large role in driving Bangladesh’s growth.  As a result, no matter which party is in power, it needs to woo the garment industry.

This is why the attacks on the labor unions are so important for the state and for business in Bangladesh — it gives them some wiggle-room in a tense economic situation.  Part of the way that the police are making their case against the labor unions in Bangladesh is by torturing them into making confessions against their respective organizations.  The New York Times reported the following:

But labor and human rights advocacy groups said at least one worker has told his colleagues that he was tortured into giving false evidence against himself and other labor leaders before he escaped from custody. Advocates also said that they were worried about the safety of people arrested in recent days.

It should be added, though, that Bangladesh’s problems are not exclusive to the garment sector, with strikes breaking out in the transportation industry and serious grievances in the ship-breaking industry.

Literary news

The Daily Star has a great write-up of a new generation of Bangladeshi writers working in English.  It’s interesting to me, at any rate, how the debate about the character of BWE is the same debate about IWE a few decades ago:

Although Bangladeshi writing in English has a long way to go, it has a bright future too. We may be able to play at least a role similar to that of India. But how? The ongoing mode of BWE has to be liberated from the literary coterie, i.e., the small circle of writers, publishers, and their admirers. It has to be rescued from the narrow confines of academia and the English medium schools. English language newspapers and magazines should allow enough room for literary expression and fresh writings should be picked solely on merit. The King’s/Queen’s English can better be exploited by the conscious ‘Calibans’ of our country.

India is pressing the UN to make Hindi an official language, but it’s coming up against the financial strains that this would put the UN under.

Shahid Malik was in India campaigning for Urdu literature; he argued that Urdu literature could help ease India-Pakistan tensions: “We can remove animosity through literary and creative writings. Mindset can be changed (through literature)… battlefields can be transformed into oasis of peace… Urdu literature can be helpful in (improving) relations.”  Even though I am a huge fan of using Urdu literature for expressly this purpose, perhaps Shahid Malik should worry about the race relations in his own backyard first: how about standing up for the rights of Muslim women, High Commissioner, and not blaming the victim.

The Express Tribune has an interesting write-up of a new literary prize, the “Life’s Too Short Short Story Prize”:

While first prize went to Sadaf Halai for her subtle, perceptive and superbly understated story of class conflict, Lucky People, the real stand out is Sheikh’s Six-Fingered Man, a coming of age story set in Kashmir. It is hard to imagine that this is somebody’s first attempt at fiction, so confident is his prose and so tender the characterisation, with a lyricism that never, ever succumbs to the maudlin. Other exceptional stories in this collection include the first, Baby, by creative writing graduate Mehreen Ajaz, not only for its stark prose and brave subject matter but also for being a short story by a Pakistani writer that doesn’t lean on Pakistan to attract attention — it is a story about two people which could be set anywhere, and this is more rare than one would imagine in Pakistani fiction. A delightfully quirky addition to this collection is Danish Islam’s, Mir Sahib’s Hairdo, a comic fable that appears very much to draw upon the conventions of Urdu literature.

The struggle heats up again in Bangladesh

This time it looks like the garment workers are not going to be easily cowed into submission.  Even though I’ve been writing about the challenges that the labor movement in Bangladesh is facing from the state and the bosses, there are signs that a section of the movement is drawing some fairly combative conclusions and reaching out to other sections of the labor movement in the hopes of pushing things forward.

On Saturday, for instance, 4000 garment workers blockaded the Dhaka-Sylhet highway and had a standoff with the police that lasted four hours.  Their demands included an implementation of the government-mandated wage increase in August (rather than November which is when the minimum wage increase is supposed to take place) and a eight-hour work day (work days are currently between 11 and 15 hours long) and an end to intimidation by factory owners.  In a principled defense of their unions, the protesters also demanded the immediate release of Mantu Ghosh, one of the leaders of the Garments Trade Union Center and the Communist Party of Bangladesh.  Early reports seem to indicate that the protesters left peacefully after negotiating with the police and winning some of their demands.  But there are also reports that several people were injured in the fierce fight between the protesters and the police.  There are also reports that most of the factories in Katherpul were shut down today.

The police repeated the claim that striking workers are lazy and vandals and have used that as a pretext to arrest several of the protesters.  Meanwhile, there are reports of workers being injured on the job in the garment industry every day.  The bosses will spend more money on covering their asses than they will on helping Badal’s family deal with his death or in compensating them for the unsafe working conditions that caused his death.

There are two outcomes possible now: either the left unions are able to win increasing numbers of garment workers to their side and continue the agitation or the police are able to repress the more militant actions while the conservative unions pressure their members to go back to work.  Right now it seems that the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of the left unions, though it has to be said that this weekend’s protest was much smaller than the ones that took place two weeks ago.

Most of the mainstream commentary still makes this an issue about what consumers are willing to pay rather than how much profit the bosses make.  It seems fairly obvious that there is money to go around — and that the bosses are trying as hard as they can to keep as much of it for themselves.

More repression in Bangladesh

The Daily Star is reporting that two more labor leaders were arrested yesterday.  Babul Akhter (of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation) and Kalpana Akhter (of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidairty) were both arrested on charges of instigating the strike for higher wages.  The media is also implying that they were acting under orders from “outside agitators” (i.e. international labor unions) in order to destabilize the garment industry.  The police have been relying on video footage and photographs to target the leadership of the strike and arrest them after the fact.

This is a continuation of a week-long campaign of intimidation and vilification of the garment workers’ unions that has been taking place in Bangladesh since the strikes that happened earlier this month.  The repression is clearly being demanded by the owners of the textile mills, in part because they fear that rising wages and a more militant trade union eliminates their advantage over textile mills in neighboring countries, especially India.

But in an amazing show of solidarity, young workers, teachers, artists, and writers formed a human chain at Shahbagh in Dhaka to demand that the garment workers receive a decent wage and that the police stop the “capture and torture” of garment workers and union leaders.  According to the activists at that rally, more than 4000 workers have been arrested and there are widespread reports of police torture.

Bangladesh backs NGWF-style unions

The new plan, it seems, is for Bangladesh to attempt to expand the base of workers that are represented by the government-backed unions.  Labor Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain has announced his plans to get trade unions into the ready-made garment (RMG) industry.  This would otherwise be good news for one of the most thoroughly exploited labor forces in the world, were it not for the fact that the unions are being set up to help the bosses keep production running rather than to help the workers advocate for their interests.  This is how Hossain described the function of the new unions:

The minister also said that labour representatives could “play an effective role to stop unrest in the sector.”

He stressed the need for the reestablishment of discipline in the garments sector, saying that the country’s image has been tarnished due to recent workers’ unrest.

This is a nakedly opportunist move: grow the unions in order to ensure the interests of the factory owners.  After all, according to the government, it’s because there are too few labor unions in the factories that the protests became violent (and not because of the sweatshop wages and conditions that persist in Bangladesh).  It’s clearly designed to squeeze out the more radical sections of the union movement by making the government-backed unions larger and more “representative” (and thus completing the pincer action on the radicals who are already facing prosecution from the courts).  I can’t imagine that the Bangladeshi textile workers will after having just engaged in some spectacular and dramatic protests easily accept the diktat of these new, more conservative unions, but it’s possible that they will be able to deliver some, meager benefits early on and thus confuse the issues that have united the workers thus far.

Hypocrisy in Bangladesh

The Bangladeshi newspapers are reporting that 9 men have been arrested for being involved in a “criminal conspiracy” to instigate a riot in the textile manufacturing districts.  The interviews with the men arrested make it seem as as though they are not in the union leadership, but they will clearly be scapegoated for much of the violence and be used as a pretext for cracking down on the other labor unions.  The Rapid Action Battalion officials are already saying that they suspect “Some 10 to 15 workers’ organisations are being funded to instigate violence.”  What is also clear is that the arrests that are being made now are for incredibly petty things, like stealing a pair of sunglasses, which means that this is one of the most incompetent raids of working class unions ever performed (not that I am in favor of competent raids against unions).  And in typical fashion, the RAB is attempting to link the violence to the influence of “foreign elements” who are attempting to destabilize the all-important garment industry.

At the same time, if you look at the footage of the protests, it’s pretty clear that this is not being orchestrated by 9 sunglass thieves, but is genuinely a mass protest movement:

And what’s also clear is that the police have to be held accountable for the indiscriminate use of violence against the people involved in the protests (though there is no sign that this is in the works):

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Agency (BGMEA), the main organization of the textile industrialists, has asked for more police during Ramadan.  The RAB has dutifully responded: they’ve already begun setting up new police stations (Savar-Ashulia, Narayanganj, Gazipur and Chittagong) to help them ensure the security of the textile manufacturing areas (though these will undoubtedly be used to spy on the work of the unions).  That they are this worried seems to mean that we can expect another round of protests sooner rather than later.  Meanwhile Home Minister Sahara Khatun lost no time in pinning the blame on the BNP and the Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami.

Incidentally, the intense competition inside of the garment industry globally means that clothing prices are not likely to rise.  This basically means that factory owners will have to find new and more vicious ways of squeezing their employees.

Split in the textile unions widens

The Bangladeshi Financial Express has a piece today on the growing split between the “Protesting Garment Workers Federation” (that is in favor of the higher minimum wage of Tk 5000) and the Garment Worker and Industry Protection Coordinated Committee (which includes the NGWF and has the backing of the government).  At least in part, the piece suggests that the next wave of attacks against the more militant unions will be a legal challenge to their right to organize in the factories.  Currently, several of the unions are uncertified and illegal, and Amirul Haq Amin (of the National Garment Workers Federation) has been using that fact to discredit the more militant unions as “outside agitators” (which is the position of the government and the industrialists) and to win support for his, more conservative position.  At the same time, there does seem to be pretty close collaboration between the more radical unions and depending on their ability to challenge the legal fallout from the protests earlier this week, there does seem to the basis here for a more serious challenge to the bosses and the conservative unions.

I also just had to add this picture — can you imagine how many Bangladeshi Norma Rae’s are being born in this crucible?