Villagers vs. Bangladeshi army

It’s pretty hard to know exactly what’s happening (partly because I’m in the US trying to figure out what’s going on on the other side of the planet) in Bangladesh, but the last few days I’ve been struck by a pretty spectacular fight of villagers protesting against army acquisition of their lands on the cheap.

Here’s what I’ve been able to gather from the various news reports. The Bangladeshi army is attempting to acquire some 5,000 bighas of land (a Bangladeshi bigha = 1600 square yards) for an army housing project in Narayanganj.

In response, villagers organized under two unions (Kayetpara and Rupganj unions) protested the army’s maneuver to coerce people into selling their land on the cheap to the army. The army has set up provisional housing in nearby villages and has been sending agents to pressure locals into selling their land for a fraction of their market value and preventing the locals from registering their land (which would offer them some limited legal protections against coercion). At least one report reveals inconsistencies in the Army’s claims that it is working by the books: the state minister of housing claims that the developers have not followed proper procedures, which include seeking the approval of local officials and submitting layouts of the development.

Some 7000 demonstrators came out to block the road to the proposed housing project by constructing a barricade. After a stand-off of several hours, the police and the Rapid Action Battalion were sent in to tear down the barricade and remove the protesters. They lobbed tear gas and charged the protesters with batons. 10 of the protesters were shot with live ammunition, 50 others were wounded. Law enforcement officials deny firing on the protesters (which makes one wonder how they were shot); several eyewitnesses have the police firing upwards of 150 rounds.

Almost immediately after, protesters descended on one of the provisional army housing camps at Musuri and set it on fire. Military personnel there had to be evacuated by helicopter.

The Bangladeshi Army has been predictably dumbfounded, as they claim that they have had several reasonable discussions with the locals to let them know that the housing plan is “completely run by the personal fund of the army members” and there was no attempt by the army to coerce people into selling their land. In the Army’s mind, the protesters were egged on by outside agitators who have been spreading “hostile and fearful” rumors. The ruling Awami League saw this as an opportunity to blame its primary rival, the Bangladeshi National Party, and its leader, Khaleda Zia, insinuating that the real reason for the protests is a recent ruling by the Bangladeshi Supreme Court asking her to vacate her cantonment home. This of course allows the Awami League the ability to play the victim and repeat its pleas for calm, all the while ensuring that the Army’s plans move forward apace. Incidentally, some villagers have identified the Awami League’s Golam Dastagir Gazi as instrumental in helping the Army purchase land on the cheap.

Bangladeshi industries facing fights with labor

AIRLINE INDUSTRY

On August 31, workers at Biman Bangladesh Airlines demonstrated at the national headquarters of the air carrier and demanded that the airline stop its attacks on their wages.  When the managing director Zakiul Islam refused to meet with them, his staff locked him inside his office.  They protested for most of the day and agreed to leave and reconvene at the Board of Director’s meeting that was taking place the following day.  They did also threaten to strike and bring the airline to a standstill if their demands were not met.

At the heart of the conflict between managers and workers are the new pay scale that the airline is implementing in order to boost profits and the elimination of the pension scheme.  Some 3,000 workers will lose their pensions if the restructuring goes forward.  The airline company, incidentally, also just recently went public, making it the country’s largest public limited company.  The workers were demanding a return to the government pay scale that they had in place before.  The new pay structure would mean that workers would not see their wages rise as much as they had been promised.  And since they are government employees, they had been counting on see their wages rise as much as their counterparts in other public industries.

According to the Financial Express, “The demonstrating workers and employees’ unions are the Biman Sramik League, Biman Sramik Dal, Society of Aircraft Engineers of Bangladesh (SAEB), Biman Sramik Union, Biman Employees Union (CBA) and Biman Officers Association.”

On Thursday, September 2, the Board of Directors announced that it would meet all of the demands of the protesting workers.  I’m providing a link to a video of the victorious workers:

GARMENT INDUSTRY

A new study from Dr. Sanchita Banerjee Saxena and Véronique Salze-Lozac’h entitled “Competitiveness in the Garment and Textiles Industry: Creating a supportive environment” argues that countries like Bangladesh which are dependent on textile exports have to cultivate other competitive advantages other than cheap labor inputs.  This may be part of an attempt of reforming capitalism from within, by showing (as many liberals have) that better working conditions improve productivity and quality and that infrastructure improvements can offset attempts to squeeze workers:

As indicated in this study, the main actors in the sector are convinced that there is more to competitiveness and productivity than just low labor costs. If investment in infrastructure to improve lead times and facilitate trade is key to Bangladesh’s competitiveness, developing and implementing supportive policies, and improving governance at the national and factory levels is also crucial. International buyers are not simply focusing on cost and the bottom line. Because buyers are looking for “more,” it is in the interest of government officials to enact policies that will increase worker benefits (wages, health care, etc.). It is also in the interest of factory owners to implement these policies, so that they will gain a workforce that is better skilled and more productive. Bangladeshi factories are no longer sweatshops with minimal labor standards and workers toiling away for 20 hours a day. Many factories are now focusing on becoming more efficient, with a happier and healthier workforce. Labor awareness, compliance issues, an improved public image, and changes in the conditions of global competition have all led to these improvements.  Further positive developments in this area will compel the developed nations to look on the country more favorably.

One of the problems that a study like this one overlooks is that there are structural impediments to reform in the garment industry, including the deep connections between the factory owners and the government which means that they are both inclined to use their power to extract concessions from workers rather than from themselves whenever possible.  Here’s how Jeremy Seabrook puts it:

More than 30 MPs of the ruling Awami League are factory owners. This is reflected in the government’s response to unrest. After the April disturbances, the Home Minister said: “No one will be spared if found to be involved in creating unrest in the garments sector.” Government said it had “information that outsiders often fuel trouble in this sector.” The ruling elite cannot imagine that poverty, and not malice, drives people, although owners spend as much on a night out as their workers earn in a year. In any case, they prefer to see in the unrest evidence of conspiracy or sabotage by their political opponents.

As a result (and as I’ve argued previously), the workers in the garment industry are compelled to fight back.  As Bangladesh News reported, some of the more militant unions are focusing on the non-payment of Eid bonuses this year to organize workers in a more combative posture.  In fact, the organizing seems to have reached a substantial enough pitch that the Bangladeshi police are encouraging factory owners to pay the Eid bonuses on time to avoid another round of labor unrest.  They have collected reports that there is substantial organizing activity in more than 110 factories (there are more than 6500 garment factories in Bangladesh).

In other news, India is attempting to reorganize its garment exports to become more competitive with Bangladesh and China.

SHIP-BREAKING INDUSTRY

In response to the environmental problems produced by Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry (an industry which it needs to provide steel for national industries since there are few iron deposits in Bangladesh), a Dutch company is proposing building the world’s first “green dock wharf” in Bangladesh.  It would be equipped with the necessary technology to deal with the hazardous chemicals on board these ships and safely recycle them.  I’m interested in seeing how this develops.

Bangladesh

There appear to be three inter-related processes at work in Bangladesh that are producing the current crisis.

The first is the Bangladeshi economy which last month produced some spectacular strikes in Bangladesh’s large garment sector.  The cost of living has quickly outstripped the meager wages that Bangladeshi textile workers receive (approximately 25 dollars a month), and in response they staged a massive general strike which shut down Dhaka.  In response, 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 workers were eventually forced back to work with some vague assuraces that wage increases would be forthcoming (sometime in the next three months).  Unfortunately, the global economic downturn has put a squeeze on the profits of the textile industry in Bangladesh, which is looking to survive the problem by squeezing wages.  And as the garment industry is the largest industry in Bangladesh (employing some 2 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.

Added to this is the massive power crisis that Bangladesh has been suffering from.  The poor infrastructure of the country have made it difficult to attract foreign direct investment as well as drastically increased the cost of living for ordinary Bangladeshis.  Perhaps most disturbing is that a country that is ravaged by the effects of global warming routinely is now looking at overcoming its power shortages by investing heavily in coal-based power plants.

The second is the long-standing political fight between the Awami League and the Bangladeshi National Party (and its partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami).  This is manifesting in charges being brought by the AL against the Jamaat for its involvement in the events of the 1971 war that partitioned Bangladesh and Pakistan.   The Jamaat’s senior assistant secretary general Mohammad Qamaruzzaman and assistant secretary general Qader Mollah were detained for their involvement in the Islami Chatra Sangha and the al-Badr militia movement which opposed the independence of Bangladesh and fought against the Indian-backed Mukti Bohini forces.  The charges against them — compiled by an inquiry conducted in 1995 — include killing civilians during the 1971 war.  In response, the Jamaat has produced a list of figures in the Awami League who may also have been involved in targeted assassinations of civilians in 1971.  Three other leaders of the Jamaat were arrested for “hurting religious sentiment“.

Earlier this month, the Jamaat and the BNP staged joint demonstrations against the rounding up of senior Jamaat party heads, arguing that the detentions were politically motivated rather than genuine.  The Awami League countered that it was merely fulfilling campaign promises to go after “anti-patriotic forces.”  It is more likely that Sheik Hasina is pursuing a cynical and opportunist strategy of eliminating her opposition and strengthening her own ruling coalition by relying on tired nationalist slogans (despite the probable guilt of the Jamaat leaders arrested).  If those rounded up are convicted of the charges against them, it could result in the execution of much of the leadership of the Jamaat.  There are also growing signs that the BNP may be looking for opportunities to distance itself from the Jamaat, as it fears that there will be a political fallout from being associated with and defending war criminals.

The third are the massive reforms being pushed through in the military in response to the coup that was attempted in 2009.  Some 824 officers and soldiers are being brought up on charges.  One of the key reforms is the use of military rather than civilian courts to try mutineers (military courts are faster and can now administer the death penalty for mutiny).  Sheikh Hasina clearly has something to be worried about since the mutineers threatened to topple her government — renaming the Bangladesh Rifles and restructuring the unit are part of the process of bringing that wing of the military/paramilitary under more direct control of the civilian government.  It was probably the isolation and the weakness of the forces allied to the mutineers that prevented the mutiny from succeeding, in the first place.  It also seems to be the case that the demands and causes of the mutineers were limited to internal democracy, wages, and ending corruption within the army and not broader demands that could have been linked to the more widespread fears of “civil war” that were being circulated at the time.